Fritz Haber Biography (1868-1934)



Nationality
German
Gender
Male
Occupation
physical chemist

Haber was born in Breslau, Germany, which is now part of Poland. Drawn to thenew field of physical chemistry, which had just been established by Russian-German chemist Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932) and other scientists, Haber was reluctant to stay at home and enter his father's business of sellingdyes and other pigments. Haber obtained his doctorate from the University ofBerlin in 1891 and became a professor at the University of Dahlem in 1898. Haber's early research in electrochemistry resulted in the invention of the first glass electrode. This device became the most common, convenient method ofmeasuring the acidity of solutions. Haber, who had studied under Robert Wilhelm Bunsen, was also interested in thermal decomposition and other chemical processes that take place in flames. During the early 1900s, one of the problems facing scientists worldwide was the eventual depletion of a natural resource--Chile saltpeter (sodium nitrate, or NaNO 3 ), which was used tomake fertilizers, explosives, and other industrial products. Without nitrogen-based fertilizers to increase crop yields, it was feared that the growing world population would go hungry. Although a practically inexhaustible sourceof nitrogen exists in the atmosphere, which consists of nearly eighty percentnitrogen, no one knew how to convert the element into useful compounds, suchas ammonia, on a large scale. Haber began investigating the possibility of combining nitrogen from the atmosphere with hydrogen to form ammonia (NH3). Although the chemistry of ammonia synthesis seemed to be simple, the technologywas quite difficult. High temperatures and very high pressures were needed to produce great enough quantities of ammonia to make the process economical.By 1908 Haber had succeeded in developing an ammonia synthesis process that worked in the laboratory. Initially the process used osmium or uranium as a catalyst, and the reactions took place at a temperature of 1,022 ┬░ F (550┬░ C) and at pressures up to two hundred times greater than normal atmospheric pressure. By 1913 Carl Bosch had refined the process and developed the necessary equipment for producing ammonia on an industrial scale. The industrialprocess, which operated at slightly lower temperatures and higher pressures,used finely divided iron as a catalyst. Essentially, the Haber-Bosch processhas remained unchanged since the early 1900s and is used today to manufacture thousands of tons of ammonia worldwide. In 1911, in honor of his accomplishment, Haber was appointed director of Germany's newly created Kaiser WilhelmInstitute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry. Soon after World War Ibegan in 1914, the Haber-Bosch process saved the German army from running out of ammunition . Ammonia could easily be converted into nitric acid, an essential ingredient in explosives, via the Ostwald-Bauer process, which had beeninvented by Ostwald in 1901. By synthesizing ammonia, Germany was able to manufacture ammunition even after supplies of Chile saltpeter had been cut offby Allied ships which blockaded German ports. The outbreak of war also brought dramatic changes to Haber's life. Research at the institute he headed was redirected to support Germany's military needs and Haber became chief of the country's chemical warfare research. In 1915, Haber directed the first use ofthe poisonous gas chlorine, which was released into Allied trenches at Ypres,France. Haber then supervised development of the more deadly mustard gas , which was first used in 1917. During the war, Haber was also responsible for developing an effective gas mask for protecting German troops from Allied gasattacks. Germany's defeat was a bitter blow for Haber, who was a staunch patriot. Haber was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing an ammonia synthesis process. However, because Haber was still regarded as the villain responsible for inventing poison gas, many scientists vehemently objected to Haber's award, calling it "ill-advised" and "undiplomatic," and some prize winners protested by refusing to accept their awards. On the other hand, many scientists defended Haber's work, calling attention to the numerous otherproducts that can be made using the ammonia synthesis process. Haber spent the years between the two world wars trying to help repay Germany's war debtsby extracting gold from seawater. Although an experimental ship was built, the amount of gold obtained was too small, and Haber gave up the project in 1928. A few years later, Hitler's Nazis came into power, and the government planned to dismiss all Jews working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Haber was noexception, despite all of his efforts to support Germany during and after World War I. In 1933 Haber resigned his directorship, pointing out, "I have selected my collaborators on the basis of their intelligence and their characterand not on the basis of their grandmothers." Although he worked briefly at Cambridge University, Haber intended to settle in Israel but died of a heart attack on the way there.

Recent Updates

October 12, 2005: A biography of Haber, Daniel CharlesĂs Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Ageof Chemical Warfare, was published by Ecco Press in August. Vern ThiessenĂs play about Haber, EinsteinĂs Gift, opened Off-Broadway at the AcornTheater in October, and Daniel RagussisĂs film Haber was recently released. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, October 12, 2005.October 12, 2005: A biography of Haber, Daniel CharlesĂs Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Ageof Chemical Warfare, was published by Ecco Press in August. Vern Thiessen's play about Haber, Einstein's Gift, opened Off-Broadway at the AcornTheater in October, and Daniel RagussisĂs film Haber was recently released. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, October 12, 2005.October 12, 2005: A biography of Haber, Daniel Charles's Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Ageof Chemical Warfare, was published by Ecco Press in August. Vern Thiessen's play about Haber, Einstein's Gift, opened Off-Broadway at the AcornTheater in October, and Daniel Ragussis's film Haber was recently released. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, October 12, 2005.February 8, 2006: It was announced that Haber and Karl Bosch will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for their development of theammonia production process. The National Inventors Hall of Fame honors individuals whose work has changed society and improved the way we live. The 2006class will be inducted during a ceremony held in Akron, Ohio, in May. Source: EurekAlert, www.eurekalert.org, February 9, 2006.



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