Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fertilizer from the Air and Its Invention

Carl Bosch
Carl Bosch, who was a chemist for BASF, and developed a practical industrial process for making ammonia from the air. It is called the most important chemical process ever discovered making fertilizer that allows farmer to feed so many people. It is said that half of the nitrogen in the human body has been synthesized from the air.

Bosch was assigned to the project by his bosses, who bought rights to the invention of Fritz Haber. Haber was a Professor at Karlsruhe, when he developed a high pressure process to fix nitrogen using a ruthinium catalyst in 1907.

Haber had a number of collaborators including Le Rossignol for the pressure equipment, Nerst for the thermodynamics, and Ostwald for prior art in catalyst selection.

The point here is that Haber had a network, and Haber and his bosses at BASF were plugged into it. Networks and the interfaces between organizations continue to be important in transmitting ideas. The isolated genius is not a very important phenomenon in science.

Didn't Fritz Haber have cool glasses? Oh, that is
his lab set up in the hood.
A Bosch Reactor
Bosch's project was the biggest chemical engineering plant at the time. It is an early example of Big Science. Significant technical projects today are increasing efforts of hundreds of people. Bosch's project was fast. He had the plant up in just five year making 7 million kg of ammonia a year. Today BASF makes 110 times that much in Germany.  Bosch got that plant up in 4-5 years. He was motivated by the threat of a British naval blockade, but also things just moved faster back then.