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He was the first chemist to find a way to obtain nitrogen fertilizer from the air. Because of his discovery, billions of people no longer suffer from hunger, and the Nobel Committee awarded him the highest honor in the scientific community. However, proposing and promoting the use of chlorine on the battlefield of “World War I” also made him the “father of chemical warfare” with blood on his hands. He is Fritz Haber.
Nitrogen is priceless
In September 1898, William Crooks, an academician of the Royal Society of England, gave a speech in which he raised an urgent and fatal problem-human beings are about to face a food crisis, the old agricultural production methods are unsustainable, and there is no more on earth. Arable land. However, “human hungry mouths continue to reproduce”, the solution is only one word: nitrogen.
Nitrogen is an important element that composes living organisms, and it is also a raw material for the production of fertilizers, pesticides, and explosives. It has a wide range of sources, accounting for about 78% of the atmospheric content, but because of its stable nature, it is difficult to be directly used by organisms. Traditional agriculture increases the nitrogen content of the land and improves the fertility of the land by intensively recycling human and animal manure, planting legumes, or implementing crop rotation.
At the beginning of the 19th century, people discovered millions of tons of guano accumulated for centuries on a small island not far from the coast of Peru. Guano is rich in organic matter and nitrogen and phosphorus compounds. Fertilizers for crops and fertilizers have triggered an upsurge of competition among countries-in 1869 alone, more than 550,000 tons of sea guano were mined. In 1856, the United States even promulgated the Guano Island Act, which stipulates that all unclaimed islands containing guano sediments can be occupied by American citizens and the country can send troops to protect them when necessary. However, due to over-exploitation, these high-quality fertilizers were quickly exhausted.
In the 1870s, a nitrogen-rich nitrate ore was discovered in Chile, south of Peru, and the crisis of nitrogen shortage was temporarily alleviated. By 1900, Chile’s fertilizer production accounted for two-thirds of the world’s total. But the good times didn’t last long. After decades of mining, Chilean nitrate ore showed signs of being exhausted.
This caused the worry of Germany on the other side of the Atlantic. From the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, Germany developed rapidly, and the center of European industry shifted from Britain to Germany. At the same time, Germany’s population began to expand rapidly. From 1870 to 1910, the population of Germany surged from 39.5 million to 63.5 million in just 40 years. Therefore, the demand for nitrogen fertilizer is also increasing day by day. At that time, Germany has become the largest importer of Chilean nitrate.
The increasing depletion of nitrate ore in Chile and the fear of a war — once a war breaks out and the German sea saltpeter transportation line is cut off by the British, they will face a lack of food and ammunition — which makes the Germans realize that they must find an industrial nitrogen fixation. The method converts the rich nitrogen in the air into nitrogen-containing compounds.
However, research has been lingering. Scientists tried to generate ammonia through the reaction of nitrogen and hydrogen to achieve nitrogen fixation, but the nature of nitrogen is stable. There are 3 covalent bonds between each pair of atoms. To destroy these covalent bonds requires a lot of energy, which cannot be achieved in industry. Produce.
These problems remained difficult to solve until the emergence of the Jewish Fritz Haber (1868—1934).
In 1868, Fritz Haber was born into a Jewish family in Breslau, East Prussia (now Poland). Hubble’s father was a wealthy businessman who made dyes and paints. He hoped that Hubble would inherit his father’s business. However, Hubble, who was passionate about the chemical industry, was not interested in doing business at all.
Since 1886, Hubble has been studying at the University of Berlin, Heidelberg University, and the Technical University of Berlin. In 1891, the 23-year-old Hubble received his doctorate with honors under the guidance of Karl Lieberman, professor of chemistry at the Technical University of Berlin.
At first, Hubble was concerned about the nitrogen problem not because of his responsibility to solve the human food problem, but because of an accident. In 1903, Haber received a letter from the manager of an Austrian chemical plant. They detected exciting ammonia in the chemicals. They turned to Haber to obtain the technology for commercial production of ammonia. Hubble’s research found that nitrogen reacts with hydrogen to form ammonia at a high temperature of 1000°C, but the heat will cause the ammonia to quickly decompose. Therefore, the ammonia content in the final mixture is very small and does not have production value. “This is a futile struggle between man and nature,” he told the manager that this technology is difficult to achieve, and published the research results in scientific journals.
The results of Hubble’s experiment aroused the suspicion of the famous Walter Nernst. Nernst believed that Hubble’s experiment exaggerated the amount of ammonia synthesis and optimistically estimated the difficulty of ammonia synthesis. He mocked: “I want to suggest Professor Huber uses the correct method to calculate the (ammonia) content. “Nernst is 4 years older than Huber. He was regarded as an emerging academic star in the scientific world because of his discovery of the third law of thermodynamics. Nernst’s questioning made Hubble feel irritated and ashamed, and his strong self-esteem made him plunge into the laboratory, determined to prove Nernst’s mistake.
Through many experiments, Haber found that high pressure helps reduce the temperature required for the reaction. With the help of his assistant Rosegger, Hubble built high-pressure-resistant experimental equipment; and with the efforts of his friend Engler (Engler is a member of the supervisory board of BASF, the largest chemical company in Germany), Hubble Cooperated with BASF and obtained research funding. In order to promote the efficient progress of the reaction, Hubble also needs a catalyst. After trying nickel, manganese, platinum and a variety of rare elements, he found a suitable catalyst-osmium.
In March 1909, Hubble’s ammonia synthesis experiment finally succeeded. He excitedly shouted to his companions: “Come down! There is ammonia!” The results of the experiment were immediately reported to BASF, but when it was learned that the experiment requires at least 100 atmospheres. , The company’s chairman Brunk’s attitude suddenly became indifferent, and he slowly said: “Yesterday 7 atmospheres of pressure blew up one of our autoclaves.” The implication was that such a high pressure could not be commercialized at all. Ke was not satisfied with the experimental results. At the same time, there is an obvious problem-the catalyst osmium needed for the reaction is not only scarce but also expensive.
Despite facing two major problems, BASF researcher Karl Bosch believes that the company is worth the risk to expand its production scale. With Bosch’s unremitting efforts, Hubble’s invention was promoted to industrial production, and this method was also called the “Habble-Bosch Method” in later generations.
After the First World War, countries around the world began to use the “Habble-Bosch method” to fix nitrogen. For this reason, Haber won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 in recognition of his finding a way to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen. According to calculations by scholars, the fertilizer made by the “Hubble-Bosch Method” may feed one-third of the post-war population. Without this technology, approximately 2 billion people in the world today would not be able to survive. At the same time, the use of chemical fertilizers maintains the fertility of the cultivated land, which greatly reduces the demand for reclaiming new cultivated land. As a result, large areas of forests, grasslands, mountains, and lakes have been preserved.
“Father of Chemical Warfare”
Had there not been the First World War, Hubble would have left in history with his outstanding contributions.
Clara Imeva, Hubble’s first wife
However, just two years after Hubble discovered a method to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen, in 1911, Hubble was appointed by the German Emperor Wilhelm II as the director of the newly established Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry. The recognition of Hubble’s achievements, and the Emperor also hoped that Hubble could invent some weapons to defeat the enemy, which greatly encouraged Hubble’s fanatical and extreme “patriotism” mood, and Hubble’s life also ushered in a turning point.
The First World War broke out in 1914. Soon after the war began, the German army reached a deadlock. At this time, Hubble made an unprecedented proposal to the Imperial Supreme Command: use chlorine. Thus, the chemist who was about to win the Nobel Prize four years later became the “father of chemical warfare.”
In 1915, Hubble began training soldiers how to use the weather to blow chlorine into the enemy’s trenches, forcing the enemy to abandon their positions or even die directly. When someone questioned that this kind of behavior would violate the 1907 Hague Convention, which banned poison gas weapons, Hubble responded: “If the war can end faster in this way, it will save countless lives.”
Hubble carried on his research work with enthusiasm. He walked through the test area with fearless courage, while his wife looked at his husband nervously and desperately. A soldier recalled: “Harper’s wife was a nervous lady, and strongly opposed him to accompany the new gas force to the front.”
Harper met Clara Imévar during his military service in Breslau at the age of 21 . Yes, Imeva is a Jewish girl with a doctorate degree. The two married in 1901.
However, life after marriage was not smooth and satisfactory, and Immevaal’s letters to his mentor and friends all revealed dissatisfaction with the marriage. The gas war is the last straw to crush a fragile marriage. Clara blames her husband for his barbaric behavior, and Huber blames his wife for betraying the motherland.
”In peacetime, a scientist belongs to the world; but in wartime, he belongs to his country.” This famous quote left by Hubble is a footnote to his fanaticism and family tragedy. One night in May 1915, Hubble’s 13-year-old son Herman found her mother lying in a pool of blood-Imevar took his life with her husband’s military revolver. However, the wife’s suicide did not shake Hubble’s belief in promoting chemical weapons. The next morning, Hubble left his son alone and left home to inspect the poison gas release.
Hubble’s extreme “patriotism” did not win the victory of the German Empire. On November 11, 1918, the German Empire announced its surrender. This four-year war ended with the victory of the Allied Powers led by Britain and France. At this time, more than 26,000 people were killed by Hubble’s chemical weapons.
The twists and turns of the second half of life
After the end of the First World War, Germany faced huge indemnities, and the “patriotic” Haber once again found a research target. In 1920, Hubble recalled that he had seen in a paper by the Swedish physical chemist Arrhenius that there were trace amounts of gold in seawater, and estimated that there were about 6 milligrams of metal per ton of seawater. Haber then called his colleagues to a meeting and announced his ambitious plan: to refine seawater, obtain gold, and repay compensation for the country.
After that, Hubble spent three years in research and found that there was only about 0.01 milligrams of gold per ton of seawater. Such research had no economic significance. The conclusion of Arrhenius’s thesis was only caused by an error in the operation of the experiment. In 1926, the 58-year-old Hubble was forced to end his gold research.
In 1933, Hitler began expelling Jewish scientists after he came to power. Hubble, who was loyal to the German Empire, was forced to flee overseas and to Switzerland.
A year later, 65-year-old Hubble died of a heart attack. Before his death, he left a will, hoping to be buried with his first wife Imeva, and wrote a sentence on his tombstone: “As long as he is needed, no matter war or peace, he will serve his country. Service.”
Hubble’s death at this time may be some kind of luck, because the Zyklon B that he developed to make pesticides became a weapon for the Nazi mass murder of Jews, including Hubble’s colleagues and relatives. In 1946, Hubble’s eldest son Herman committed suicide. It is said that he committed suicide ashamed of his father’s wartime research.
Hubble and Ludwig Fritz Hubble, the son of his second wife, Eva Charlotte, later gave a presentation to “Fritz Hubble: Chemist, Nobel Prize Winner, German, Jew”. The preface of the book states that as the leader of the German gas war plan, father Hubble has been facing a dilemma. The evil consequences of the gas war have been on his father’s shoulders, even after many years.
Fritz Haber is perhaps the most controversial scientist in history. He is a scientific genius and a war demon; he is a Nobel laureate who can make fertilizer with air, and he is also the “father of chemical warfare” with blood on his hands; he has devoted his life to studying the results of serving the country, his wife and son But because of his achievements, he committed suicide in shame.
When technology leads mankind to advance at great speed, it is even more necessary for the humanistic spirit to examine our position and direction. The dedicated research and amazing discoveries of scholars may not only bring light and hope to mankind, but may also bring disaster and tragedy to mankind. After all, technology is just a tool, and how to use a tool is a test of the moral law in the minds of users.