Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Alchemy of Air

The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager is about Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. Haber was the professor that discovered that nitrogen in the air could be made into fertilizer and later into gunpowder. Carl Bosch was the industrial chemist, instrumental in the ascendancy of BASF, who did this in industrial scale. In creating synthetic fertilizer they doubled the productivity of agriculture, ended famine, enabled many more people to be born, and quite simply changed the world.

As with so many innovations, it had negative consequences too. The same ammonia made in these plants was used to make gunpowder and other explosives first in WW1 and then in WW2. Ammonia was important during WW1 when the British cut off access to nitrate in Chile. In WW2 the same situtation applied to petroleum, which Germany did not have. They made synthetic gasoline from coal.

When BASF purchased Johnson Polymer, I heard anti-Nazi grumbling from bitter co-workers. They I think unfairly thought that BASF was deeply involved in WW2 war crimes. In this book, BASF was more central to the war effort in WW1. In WW2 BASF was part of the cartel, IG Farbin, and as mentioned below, the synfuel effort was begun before the ascendency of the Nazi Party. After Bosch was removed from the chairmanship, IG Farbin did become a party to some war crimes, and several of the directors were convicted of war crimes. The BASF reconsistituted after the War. I recall meeting some guy who demanded to know if the Bosch Family still controlled BASF. I told him that I had only been in the company for a few months, and to leave me alone.

Haber was central to the use of chlorine as a war gas in WW1, and Bosch was central to the synfuel effort that literally fueled the German war machine win WW1. However, Haber was Jewish, and the synthetic fuel effort was begun for the Wiemar government. The Nazi's simply expanded it during the war. Bosch was gradually relieved of his government posts during the Nazi regime.

Bosch believed that cheap petroleum would run out in the 1930's, and people would need his gas. Obviously & ironically, people are still building making synthetic gasoline in anticipation of the world running out of fuel.

As someone who works at BASF, we are proud that innovation like ammonia were done at BASF, and BASF still has an ammonia lab that does innovative work.

It also discusses the early age of the chemical industry when it was possible to change the world with fairly basic innovations. The world does not get new chemical innovations like that any more; perhaps it does not need them. The alphabet of basic chemicals has been the same for the last sixty years.

More: I need to nitpick the title. I know we Moderns like to identify with the Wizard-like Alchemists, but actually the alchemists were opponents of the academic chemists that were the founders of the science of chemistry. They needed to drive the mysticism out of chemistry to make progress. Alchemy is far more romantic, but actually Bosch and Haber were chemists not alchemists. Hager is a historian of science and should have known that. [Thomas Hager points out in the comment below that the title refers to the quote in the preface by Goethe.]