Fritz Haber: A Modern Chemist
Fritz Haber was a modern scientist that altered and made advancements in several areas of chemistry. He was born in Breslau, Germany (now Warsaw, Poland) on December 9, 1868, and lived until his death on January 29, 1934. Since modern chemistry is defined as evolving “out of alchemy following the chemical revolution in 1773” (source 2), Faber, and his work, definetely qualifies! Fritz Haber was a German physical chemist, which means he studied and analyzed, mainly, the physical structure of chemical compounds. Haber went to college at the University of Heidelberg, the University of Berlin, and the Technical School at Charlottenberg. After working for his father, a chemical merchant, for several years, Haber decided to further his education even more. He did this in a big way! One he decided to pursue a career in science, Haber went to study under Ludwig Knorr, a German chemist known for his discovery of the Paul-Knorr synthesis. Together, Haber and Knorr produced a paper on diacetosuccinic ester, which is a very complex organic compound. Haber decided to focus his studies on physical chemistry, and threw himself into researching electrochemistry and thermodynamics. His experimental studies of hydrocarbons led him to earn the title of Privatdozent. A privatdozent is someone, in Europe, who has achieved a doctorate and studied habilitation. They are not professors, but can teach at universities for fees. Privatdozent is a high honor.
At the begginning of the 20th century, the demand for fertilizers began to be higher than the actual supply. The only supply of the chemicals needed to make this fertilizer was in Chile, along the coast line. The fact that this supply was gradually diminishing made scientists nervous, and the entire chemistry community began to race to solve the problem. Everyone knew that the solution would be to create a nitrogen fertiziler, as adding nitrogen to plants would increase agricultural growth due to the fact that it is a main nutrient in plants. They would need to create a “fixed” nitrogen compound, as nitrogen in it’s pure form is very plentiful, yet inactive. Nitrogen gas is unreactive because the molecules in it are kept together by triple bonds. This fixed nitrogen was extremely hard to come by in the world at that time, so the synthesis of it was vital. As it turns out, Fritz Haber was the only one, besides his partner Carl Bosch, that really rose to the challenge and resolved this major issue. The solution turned out to be ammonia. Haber synthesized ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen. It is said that without Haber’s discovery and the Haber-Bosch process, we would not have the food that farms around the world produce today! The creation of this compound, ammonia, had a huge effect on the world. This is because not only did Haber produce a way to keep creating fertilizer, it now could also be mass produced.
The Haber-Bosch process is sometimes referred to as the single most significant technological futherance in the modern times. It was the way to mass produce ammonia, a difficult substance to harness on a large scale beforehand, and in doing this fertilizer could be produced to sustain an increasing population. Haber found a way to use the huge supply of pure nitrogen gas in the air, and change it into a chemical compound that plants are able to utilize. This process was the first ever high pressure chemical reaction that actually was triumphant! Temperatures of up to 500 degrees Celcius, and pressures of more than 3000 psi were used. By combining hydrogen, nitrogen, high pressure and temperature, and an iron catalyst, Haber was able to force hydrogen and nitrogen to react and combine to form ammonia. The actual equation of the Haber process, or Haber-Bosch process, is N2 + 3H2 → 2NH3. Broken down, this means nitrogen gas mixed with hydrogen gas react to create ammonia, still in gas form. Bosch added to Haber’s discovery by replacing the carbon-steel compartment that the gases react in with an alloy steel with. This was helpful because the original carbon-steel container was being gradually degrading and breaking down over time, due to the high pressure and temperature. Basically, Fritz Haber developed the original process in a lab, but on a small scale. Carl Bosch just helped Fritz Haber modify his process so that mass production could occur. A positive of the entire process was that the two reactants Haber used, nitrogen and hydrogen, are very cheap, and abundant in nature. This process laid the foundation for advancements in chemistry such as Haber’s further work with nitrogen in explosives, and of course- fertilizers.
The picture above shows the contraption designed by Haber and used in the production of ammonia.
The Haber process can be used to create explosives and ammunition, as well as fertilizer. Germany was unable to use the deposits of nitrogen in Chile mentioned because, because that area was under British control. As you can see, ammonia can be considered a very ironic substance, because depending on how it is utilized, it can either sustain life or annihilate it! The creation of explosives was made possible because the Haber process is vital in the creation of nitric acid. Nitric acid is a main “ingredient” of ammunition and chemical explosives.
Fritz Haber not only created the Haber process to stabilize the agricultural economy, but to help Germany in World War I. During World War I, Germany was in a deadlock, the troops were stuck in the trenches and not making any headway. Haber Fritz was a true German patriot, so he decided to solve this problem with the creation of poison gas! Basically, Fritz Haber laid the groundwork for chemical warfare. On April 22, 1915, at Ypres, Germany, he supervised the first release of chlorine gas on the enemy. For this, Haber is sometimes known as the “father of chemical warfare”. It is estimated that between 5,000 and 15,000 lives were taken that day, of enemy troops and some German troops, accidentally. Because of Fritz’s role in the war and the mass execution of other people, his wife committed suicide a few days later. She was also a chemist, and the first woman to receive a Ph.D in Chemistry. She was strongly opposed to using science as a weapon, and it is purported that this turmoil drove her to her suicide. It is sometimes said that without Fritz Haber’s invention of poison gas, Germany would have lost the war a lot worse than they did, and been in more debt. They still failed horrible though, and Haber took this and his wife’s suicide very hard. He felt guilty and to blame, when he was trying to do the right thing- in the area of chemistry, and as a true German patriot. Haber felt so bad about Germany’s loss, that he tried to find a way to pay for the war debts and needed reperations, and get back into the country’s good graces. He attempted to extract gold from ocean water. He focused all of his energy on this project, only to find that gold in the sea is at too low of a concentration to be of any value. It turns out that this was not a complete failure though, Haber’s research and findings laid the foundation for future scientists to extract bromine from sea water. In the time after the war ended, Haber devoted himself in various projects and experiments. He studied the emition of energy by vehicles that give off fuel, and investigated ways to try and limit this loss. He was unfortunately not successful in this undertaking, but along the way found a solution for the combustion of hydrogen and carbon dioxide during experimentation and laboratory work. He also studied the classic Bunsen burner, used in labs, and flames in general. Through research and basic experimentation, he created a system to determine flame temperatures, chemically. He authored a book on this in 1905, calledThermodynamik technischer Gasreaktionen. This is translated as “The Thermodynamics of Technical Gas Reactions”, and contained other important ideas that Haber introduced to the science community. In the field of electrochemistry, Haber investigated the quinone-hydroquinone redox system. He also worked on the electrolysis of rock salts.
In 1919, Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for the Haber-Bosch process, or the usage of nitrogen in the air to produce the chemical compound ammonia. Today though, Haber would not be held in such high esteem. The nitrates in ammonia are a major hazard to our enviroment! They pollute drinking water, increase global warming, and are the cause of much smog. James Galloway, of the University of Virginia, even stated, “Nitrogen has a role in almost every environmental issue we have today." Since the world depends on nitrogen fertilizers for food production, there is no easy way to stop this occurrence. And although we now know that nitrogen is a huge pollutant, the Haber-Bosch process positively effected the world in more ways. Without it, the population, and agriculture in general, would not be what it is today.
Fritz Haber truly lived his life for science. His nature of curiousity drove him to always question why something is what it is. Haber’s inner drive enabled him to find the solutions to many issues, through chemicals. He achieved so many things scientifically in his lifetime, but is probably most known for his synthesis of ammonia (the Haber-Bosch process), and his participation in the creation and release of poison gas in World War I.. At first, Fritz Haber was very hesitant about becoming a chemist, but ended up making this area of science his life’s purpose, and almost obsession. During World War II and the take-over of Germany by Hitler, Haber was driven out of the country he had so valiently served years before. This sad fact took a toll on his health both mentally and physically, and he died a short time later in Basel. Fritz Haber was a revolutionary chemist that pioneered several huge creations and discoveries in science.
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2. Asimov, Isaac. "Haber, Fritz." Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964. 652.
3. Maurer, James F., ed. Concise Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981. 313.
4. Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1966.