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The man who pioneered modern fertilizer and chemical warfare

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Fritz Haber was called the “Father of Chemical Warfare,” and won the Nobel Prize for his process that efficiently pulls nitrogen from the air, likely the single greatest scientific contribution to feeding the modern world.

Fritz Haber was on the battlefield April 22, 1915 to watch the WW I Allied troops writhe in pain and die from the chlorine gas he engineered as a weapon, leading to him being called the “Father of Chemical Warfare.” Three years later, he won the Nobel Prize for his process that efficiently pulls nitrogen from thin air, likely the single greatest scientific contribution to feeding the modern world.

The Jewish chemist born in German in the 1860s has fascinated me for many years, mainly for his influence on modern agriculture, and for the dual aspect of human nature.

Haber pioneered the process that uses catalysts and high pressure to turn nitrogen and hydrogen gases into ammonia, or essentially a way to convert atmospheric nitrogen into fixed nitrogen that can be transported to and used by plants. The Haber process is used to make anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate and urea today. It is championed for being one of the main reasons modern crop yields can sustain a larger human population today, going from about two billion people in the early 1900s to seven billion people today – a noble and very humane scientific accomplishment.

But Haber’s science had a darker side.

I stumbled on the Haber story once again while listening to my favorite radio show, RadioLab. It comes on NPR stations across the country. Highly recommend the show. The show has an eccentric story-telling style, but a good one. On that day, the show was examining good vs. bad and the gray area between the two using Haber as an example.

The nitrogen process Haber spearheaded also was used by Germany during WWI to make highly explosive munitions – nitrogen being a major component of such things. From the accounts I’ve read, Haber was happy to have made this contribution to the Mother Land and glad he could aid in Germany’s war efforts. But he wanted to go one better for Germany and began experimenting with poisonous gases and delivery systems for such things in an effort to produce a chemical weapon that could more easily infiltrate the maze-like trench warfare that scarred Europe. The German patriot wanted to kill the enemy and kill’em bad.

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