7. The Alchemy of Air

80th death anniversary of Carl Bosch

Carl Bosch of the Haber-Bosch process fame was responsible for scaling a process to fix nitrogen to produce synthetic nitrate. The Haber-Bosch process creates synthetic N-fertilizers and is responsible for feeding a third of the world’s population. Carl Bosch died on 26th April 1940. Today is his 80th death anniversary.

This volume of “Software is feeding the world” is mostly about the Haber-Bosch process, Bosch’s role and its implications 80 years after his death.

Stay safe and sane!

The Alchemy of Air

Thomas Hager, in his 2008 book “The Alchemy of Air” talks about Fritz Haber (1868-1934) and Carl Bosch (1874-1940) and the history of the Haber-Bosch process. Both won the Nobel Prize (not Noble!) in Chemistry (Haber in 1918 and Bosch in 1931).

Haber and Bosch could not have been more different, though both were brilliant and prolific scientists. Haber wanted the publicity and the riches that could go with his fame. Bosch was a quieter engineer-type scientist who got the most joy from his work. Bosch apprenticed in a number of trades, as a molder, mechanic, carpenter, and locksmith. 

Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th-century “guano” from the Chincha Islands, near Peru was the world’s best fertilizer. Vast quantities of guano were shipped from the Chincha Islands to Europe. According to Hager’s book,

If ever a philosophers stone, the elixir of life, the infallible catholicism, the universal solvent, or the perpetual motion were discovered, it is the application of guano in agriculture.

Due to the depleting stock of guano and political tensions between Chile and Peru, European countries were looking for a different source of the fertilizer.

According to Vaclav Smil’s book, “Enriching the earth

In the beginning of the twentieth century the world faced the prospect of a steeply rising demand for fixed nitrogen and of limited, insecure, or expensive opportunities for its supply. Modernizing agricultures could break the yield limits imposed on traditional farming only through the acmes to inexpensive and abundant supplies of the nutrient. Between 1901 and 1907 laboratory work by Le Chateliear, Ostwald, Nernst (with Jost), and Haber (with Oordt and Le Rossignol) laid the theoretical foundations of ammonia synthesis. 

Most of the people stopped working on it due to different reasons. Ostwald tried to sell his process to BASF and Bosch’s test showed that Ostwald’s success was not true. At this point in time, Carl Bosch was a junior scientist at Bosch while Ostwald was one of the giants of chemistry. (Ostwald was the pioneer of the “mole” concept, an expert in catalytic processes and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1909).

Only Haber was not discouraged by his early setbacks, and he and Le Rossignol persevered in their search for a commercially acceptable solution. In two years, between May 1907 and July 1909, they advanced the project to the level of a satisfactory working bench-top apparatus. This was a truly revolutionary accomplishment: biospheric evolution has not endowed any eukaryotic organisms with the capacity to fix nitrogen, and some of the surprising small number of prokaryotes able to perform this reduction is symbiotic with any staple or tuber crop.

Haber didn’t want to be involved with the process of scaling the ammonia process to make it economically viable. So Haber turned to BASF. Bosch had to solve three problems before any full-size plant could be built.

  1. The supply of nitrogen and hydrogen to feed the process at a low price

  2. Identification and production of effective and stable catalysts

  3. Construction of durable high-pressure converters.

Bosch built a strong team around him and was able to motivate them to keep solving one problem after another, however insurmountable they seemed. They figured out a way to get a cheap supply of nitrogen and hydrogen. Bosch’s associate Alwin Mittasch kept looking for a better catalyst to get greater yields from the ammonia reaction. Bosch and his team looked to the steel industry for ideas to solve the industrial process problems of continuous processing under high pressure and temperature at scale.

From Smil’s book,

Bosch’s conviction that unprecedented difficulties could be overcome in order to commercialize the process proved to be correct. He lead a successful effort, much aided by Mittasch and Lappe, to transform a laboratory device into a continuously operating high-pressure, high-temperature synthesis process, a prototype for a new kind of chemical syntheses, in just four years.

Carl Bosch and his team were able to build a plant at Oppau to the west of the Rhine and later at Leuna near Leipzig (which became one of the heaviest bombing targets for the allies during the second world war) to scale-up production using the Haber-Bosch process. They invented new methods to extend the use of high-pressure chemistry to make new products like methanol and synthetic gasoline from coal.

The impact of the Haber-Bosch process cannot be overstated. The process contributed to the dramatic increases in agricultural yield throughout the world, including the Green Revolution in the Asian sub-continent in the 1960s. (Something that Dr. Norman Borlaug became famous for). Without the Haber-Bosch process, about two to three billion people would starve to death. Dr. Borlaug said in his Nobel lecture on December 11, 1970,

If the high-yielding dwarf wheat and rice varieties are the catalysts that have ignited the green revolution, then chemical fertilizer is the fuel that has powered its forward thrust. The responsiveness of the high-yielding varieties has greatly increased fertilizer consumption. The new varieties not only respond to much heavier dosages of fertilizer than the old ones but are also much more efficient in its use. The old tall-strawed varieties would produce only ten kilos of additional grain for each kilo of nitrogen applied, while the new varieties can produce twenty to twenty-five kilos or more of additional grain per kilo of nitrogen applied.

Figure from Erisman et al article “How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world” (2008)

Unintended consequences

In 2008, on the 100th anniversary of the filing of the patent of the ammonia process by Haber in 1908, Dr. Erisman et al wrote a feature (gated) “How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world.” According to this feature, “in 2005, approximately 100 Tg N from the Haber–Bosch process was used in global agriculture, whereas only 17 Tg N was consumed by humans in crop, dairy and meat.” Based on the diagram below from Dr. Smil’s book, more than 50% of applied nitrogen in a rice field is lost to denitrification and leaching.

Figure above from Dr. Smil’s book

  • Emissions of NO and NH3 to the atmosphere have increased about fivefold since pre-industrial times.

  • Reactive nitrogen is deposited in nitrogen-limited ecosystems, leading to unintentional fertilization and loss of terrestrial biodiversity.

  • Reactive nitrogen alters the balance of greenhouse gases, enhances tropospheric ozone, decreases stratospheric ozone, increases soil acidification, and stimulates the formation of secondary particulate matter in the atmosphere, all of which have negative effects on people and the environment.

According to Dr. Smil’s book,

Nitrogen pollution in the water ends up feeding blooms of algae and weeds that turn waterways green and cloudy. It can get so bad that it cuts off sun reaching the depths, killing life below. As the vegetation dies and rots, it pulls oxygen out of the water. As oxygen levels go down, bottom-dwelling animals, shellfish and mollusks, being to die off. The animals that feed on them starve. Toxins begin to collect. Freshwater systems begin to die. 

The big dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is a grotesque visual of what nitrogen leaching can do to the environment. This single picture tells a complicated story vividly and should spur us into action.

What does the future hold?

As the world population grows (albeit at a slower rate), agriculture intensification is going to continue. See my blogs on intensification and intensification/expansion. Fertilizers and the Haber-Bosch process will continue to be important in this process. Fertilizers will have to and will become more efficient. The application of fertilizers will become more targeted with precision agriculture. Software and data analysis will play a big role in reducing the per-unit of production footprint of fertilizers in the future.

Innovators and Innovation Process

Given the contrast between Haber and Bosch, it begs a question about the process of innovation. What kind of innovator is more important for breakthrough innovation? Is it someone like Haber who is a specialist in chemistry and persists in proving out the process at a very small scale? Or is it someone like Bosch, who takes a given table-top process from Haber and scales it to industrial levels to make it viable? Does the major impact of the Haber-Bosch process come from Haber or from Bosch? Given that the idea of a Haber-Bosch type process had been around for some time, would someone have figured it out, if not for Haber?

My personal opinion is that there are a lot of great scientific ideas out there in the world. There is a lot of value to scientific ideas, but bringing ideas and concepts to life through execution is critical to realize their full potential. It requires a collaborative effort across a wide variety of subjects.

Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen wrote in their famous 2018 paper in the Atlantic “Science is getting less bang for its buck”,

Scientific collaborations now often involve far more people than they did a century ago. When Ernest Rutherford discovered the nucleus of the atom in 1911, he published it in a paper with just a single author: himself. By contrast, the two 2012 papers announcing the discovery of the Higgs particle had roughly a thousand authors each.

Collison and Nielsen theorize that innovation might be getting harder and we might be getting less for the same amount of investment. This means that innovation is becoming more and more a team sport and not just a matter of individual flashes of genius.

Are groups better at optimizing, whereas individuals are better at breakthrough ideas? I will spend more time over the coming months to investigate the nature of innovation, with reviews of expert opinions and some of my thoughts on the matter.

Bosch’s legacy

In retrospect, Bosch comes across like an Ayn Rand’an character in the mold of John Galt. Bosch was famously very fond to be in the company of machines and loved talking science and scientific progress, but was not very comfortable around regular people. In the words of Vaclav Smil,

Bosch was a liberal technocrat who believed in progress, believed in the individual drive, and believed that humans worked best when working freely for themselves and their families. People should be free to make products, make money, and pursue their interests. Beyond that, the government should get out of the way.

Whatever might be your theory for breakthrough innovation or any innovation in general, the contributions of Bosch and Bosch like characters are huge. We owe special gratitude to them.

Content recommendations

  1. Book: The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager. It is a very approachable book. It tells the story of the Haber-Bosch process and the people involved. A must read!

  2. Book: Enriching the Earth by Vaclav Smil. Bill Gates says that he waits for Vaclav Smil books like people wait for the next season of their favorite Netflix show. Smil is a little harder to read because his books are so information dense. I highly recommend his books, if you want to geek out on a topic and really go deep.

  3. Video: Synthetic Ammonia - Fritz and Haber. If you want a quick history lesson, this video will do the job.

  4. Article: Erisman, Jan Willem & Sutton, Mark & Galloway, James & Klimont, Zbigniew & Winiwarter, Wilfried. (2008). How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world. Nature Geoscience - NAT GEOSCI. 1. 636-639. 10.1038/ngeo325. This is a gated article. I emailed Dr. Erisman and he was kind enough to send me a free PDF copy!

Non-Food and AgTech recommendations

  1. Series: Netflix’s Halt and Catch Fire is a fictional (based on true events) look at the growth of the computer industry in the 1970s and 80s. I have watched season 1 only so far. I highly recommend it. The story of the computer industry is a story of determination, failure, ambition, innovation, grit and love. The music by Austrian composer Paul Haslinger is fantastic. It has become my go to background music while doing deep work.

  2. Day: Talk about breakthrough inventions! April 25th was the 146th birth anniversary of Marconi, the inventor of the radio and the winner of the Nobel Price in Physics in 1909. (Same year as Ostwald mentioned in this volume)

  3. Day: April 25th was DNA day. It is marked to celebrate Watson and Crick’s famous paper on the double helix structure of the DNA published in 1953.

  4. Day: April 25th was also World Malaria Day. Max Roser of Our World in Data did a post on it yesterday. The post begins with this crazy line “The animal that kills most people every year isn’t the one that first comes to mind. When it comes to killing humans, no other animal comes close: Mosquitoes kill almost half a million people per year. One death every minute.” The image below shows the tremendous progress made over the decades.

    Previous prevalence of malaria world map