That Time When Chemistry Saved All of Mankind

At the beginning of the 20th century, scientists believed that Earth’s growing population was about to exceed its available food supply.  Agriculturalists raced to develop breakthrough fertilizers that could make farmlands more productive.

China scattered human waste on its rice fields.  England ground skeletons into fertilizer.  Paris used horse dung.  America used bison bones.  Peru built an entire economy by exporting more than 12 tons of guano (bird and bat droppings) around the world until it ran out.

Chemists knew that nitrogen was an ideal fertilizer.  But while the element was plentiful in the atmosphere, it was almost impossible to find in solid compounds.  (Bolivia, Chile and Peru actually went to war over the saltpeter reserves in the Atacama Desert.)

In 1909, German chemist Fritz Haber (whose birthday we celebrate on December 9) demonstrated a process that could extract ammonia (a nitrogen compound) from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen, drop by drop.  The German chemical company BASF bought Haber’s process, and employee Carl Bosch was able to scale the process to industrial levels.

The Haber-Bosch process enabled the mass production of nitrogen-based fertilizers.  It was hailed as a miracle that could literally create “bread from air,” and earned its two inventors the 1918 Nobel Prize.

(Ironically, the process also enabled the mass production of nitrogen-based explosives during World War I.  Haber is known as the father of chemical weapons.)

Author Vaclav Smil declared that “the industrial synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen has been of greater fundamental importance to the modern world than the invention of the airplane, nuclear energy, space flight, or television.”

Today, half the world’s population still uses the Haber-Bosch process to fertilize its crops.  In fact, you can thank Haber and Bosch for 40 percent of the life-giving nitrogen that’s in your body right now.  So when your son or daughter asks for a chemistry set, please get them one!

Agilent is recognized today as a world leader in chemical analysis.  Our technologies are used by the chemical and petrochemical industries, as well as in food and agricultureAgilent MP-AES, ICP-OES and AAS instruments are used for soil quality and fertilizer analysis.

Today’s post was inspired by Andrea Zenker, Agilent’s global market manager for Academia.  With Andrea’s help, teaching labs are using this blog to educate students about the importance of analytical chemistry.  Thanks Andrea!

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