Despite the World War I British naval blockade, Germany maintained a constant supply of fertilizers and explosives thanks to the Haber-Bosch process for fixing nitrogen from air, which Fritz Haber presented to the German chemical company BASF in 1909.
In 1905 Fritz Haber (1868–1934) reached an objective long sought by chemists—that of fixing nitrogen from air. Using high pressure and a catalyst, he directly reacted nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas to create ammonia. The process was soon scaled up by BASF’s great chemist and engineer Carl Bosch—hence the name “Haber-Bosch” process. The nitric acid produced from the ammonia was then used to manufacture agricultural fertilizers as well as explosives.
The Haber-Bosch process is generally credited with keeping Germany supplied with fertilizers and munitions during World War I, after the British naval blockade cut off supplies of nitrates from Chile. During the war Haber threw his energies and those of his institute into further support for the German side. He developed a new weapon—poison gas, the first example of which was chlorine gas—and supervised its initial deployment on the Western Front at Ypres, Belgium, in 1915. There was great consternation when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for 1918 for the synthesis of ammonia from its elements.
Visit Chemistry in History to learn more about Fritz Haber.
Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation