Today, it’s the 150th birth anniversary of the man, whose discoveries are responsible for food production for half of the world’s current population. Yes! I’m talking about none other than Fritz Haber, whose Nobel Prize winning Haber-Bosch process for producing ammonia has revolutionised the large-scale industrial synthesis of fertilizers and explosives, thus changing our lives.Fritz Haber was born on December 9,1968 in Breslau, Germany to one of the oldest family in the town. His father, Siegfried Haber was a chemical merchant by profession. Haber went to St. Elizabeth Classical School at Breslau and he used to perform several chemical experiments during his school days itself. He earned his doctorate in 1891 for the research he conducted at the Charlottenberg Technical College in Berlin on the organic compound, piperonal (an aromatic aldehyde). He then took several industrial positions in succession but did not settle and so he attended a semester of study at the Technical College of Zurich. There he learnt about technological applications of scientific principles.
In 1905 ,Haber reached an objective of fixing nitrogen from air. Atmospheric nitrogen is relatively inert and does not easily react with other chemicals to form new compounds. Using high pressure and a catalyst, Haber was able to directly react nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas to create ammonia. This process was soon scaled up by BASF’s chemist and engineer Carl Bosch and became known as the Haber-Bosch process, This is considered as one of the most important technological advances of the 20th century as Haber’s breakthrough enabled mass production of agricultural fertilizers and led to a massive increase in growth of crops for human consumption. This discovery of Haber won him the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Apart from synthesing ammonia, Haber also did remarkable work on the decomposition and combustion of hydrocarbon, electrolytic reduction and oxidation etc. Haber also studied the loss of energy by steam engines, turbines and motors driven by fuels, and sought methods of limiting their loss by electrochemical means.
He played the most controversial role in World War I. Haber is considered the father of chemical warfare for his years of pioneering work developing and weaponizing chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I, which had almost 67,000 casualties. Even Haber’s first wife, Clara Immerwahr (the first woman to have earned a Ph.D at her university) is thought to have committed suicide after getting depressed about Haber’s involvement in the chemical warfare.Haber quoted-
“In peace-time the scientist belongs to humanity, in war-time to his fatherland”
Haber is also a recipient of Rumford Medal (1932) and Iron Cross (1915).Fritz Haber’s life has been subjected to many dramatizations and fictionalizations over the years, these include some BBC broadcasts, some plays and some documentaries and full fledged movies.In December 2013, Haber was the subject of a BBC World Service radio programme: Why has one of the world’s most important scientists been forgotten?Fritz Haber is also known to have a close friendship with Albert Einstein.
No doubt, Haber received much criticism
for his involvement in the development of chemical weapons in pre-World War II Germany , but he also gave the world a revolutionary process for ammonia production, without which the food supply for today’s world population could have been greatly diminished. Suffering from a serious illness, Haber died on January 29, 1934, at Basle. Being a man of forceful personality, he left a lasting impression on the minds of all his associates.