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Danielle Miller

Dr. Moerdyk

SCH 106 01

8 December 2016

The Haber-Bosch Process: Food or Foe?

Over one hundred years ago, German scientists discovered an extraordinary

process that would revolutionize the way we grow food and how we eat it. Haber and

Bosch were two scientists questing for a solution to a growing global population and the

increased needs for food production and storage. While they overcame the trials and

tribulations of dozens of scientists before them, they struggled to appease the chemical

and physical implications of ammonia production. Little did they know that their process,

the Haber-Bosch process, would later be coined as one of the greatest discoveries of

modern times, lead to two Nobel Prizes, and employ widespread usage of commercial

ammonia over a century later. While ammonia may be thought to be found only in

household cleaning supplies and seem as though it is readily available, the process of

nitrogen fixation and commercialized ammonia production is far from commonplace.

During the beginning of the 19th century, global tensions were high pre-war as

each country competed against other powerhouse nations. Germany, specifically was

looking for an ammonia compound that could yield nitrates in order to produce

gunpowder and explosives needed to support their forces in World War I. During the

war, Germany’s supply line was stifled and the original supply line was practically

diminished. A blockade was implemented that restricted access to Chilean saltpeter by


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the Germans and therefore, there was no resource for the acquisition of the large

amount of sodium nitrate needing to create weapons and war technology. Germany’s

scientists were tasked with finding a solution to the lack of natural product. Fritz

Haber, a German physical chemist, developed what is today known as the Haber-Bosch

process, a nitrogen fixation process in which synthetic ammonia can be produced. This

process was the first successful attempt at affordable, large scale ammonia production.

Previously, the Birkleand-Eyde and Frank-Caro processes where deemed highly

inefficient in terms of energy use. Germany’s largest chemical company, BASF, tasked

Carl Bosch with developing ammonia at a rate feasible for commercial sale. As the war

ended, Germany wanted to keep the process confidential but Bosch was a member of

the German negotiating team and offered details in order to facilitate the building of a

French Haber-Bosch plant (Louchheim).

While nitrates in war were in high demand, ammonia as a fertilizing product was

needed on the farming front. There was longstanding debate within the scientific

community regarding the importance and use of nitrogen in the growth of plants.

Research at the time showed that fertilizers with additional nitrogen increased crop

yields. Due to the fact all of this was occurring during the brink of a global food crisis,

a better solution was needed. At the time, the reserve of industrial grade fertilizers and

feeding crop were predicted to be used at a higher rate than production capabilities.

Unfortunately, this would result in a drastic need for ammonia, which was just not

possible at the time (Clark). Ammonia usage became more important but the product

was just not being produced at the rate required. Atmospheric nitrogen was plentiful,
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but proved to be too stable to react. Fritz Haber and his assistant Robert Le Rossignol

were the ones who used a high pressure device and a catalyst to produce ammonia

from the nitrogen in the air that existed naturally. The process that they created

resulted in about 4 ounces of ammonia per hour because the process was completed in

a step-by-step process. Carl Bosch was the scientist responsible for scaling this

painstakingly slow process to its capabilities at an industrial level, where it would

further be capable of commercial sale ("Nobel Lecture: The Development of the

Chemical High Pressure Method”).

Even though the process is named for Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, many other

generations of scientists also contributed. Alwin Mittasch worked at the same facility as

Bosch and he was responsible for discovering the iron based catalyst that is widely used

today. In 1918, Haber was the first to be credited with a Nobel Prize for the discovery

of the process. In 1932, Bosch and assistant researcher Frederick Bergius were

awarded the Nobel Prize for the invention and development of chemical high pressure

methods. Specifically, Bosch discovered the synthesis of ammonia from its elements

(Zmaczynski). In collaboration with Haber, Bosch created the machinery needed to

handle the demands of the chemical reaction. In 2007, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

was awarded to Gerhard Ertl, a later associate of Haber, who worked at his institute in

Berlin, Germany. Ertl is credited with explaining how chemical reactions occur on

various surfaces. He determined which molecular mechanisms occur during the

synthesis of ammonia and its catalyst, iron in the Haber-Bosch process ("The Nobel

Prize in Chemistry 2007.").


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As the first industrial chemical process to use high pressure, this process uses

nitrogen, which comprises about 80 % of the air around us and hydrogen, a form of

methane drawn from natural gas. The permeating issue is that nitrogen is unreactive,

due to the strong triple bonds it is capable of forming. Temperature and pressure were

two factors that created contention among the scientific community as far as the

reaction mechanism with which to balance them. In considering temperature, the

equilibrium equation needs to drastically favor products ("Nobel Lecture: The Synthesis

of Ammonia from Its Elements”). Due to Le Chatlier’s principle, products will be favored

at a lower temperature. With regard to the exothermic nature of the reaction, the

equilibrium constant needs to be considered. The equilibrium constant reaches one at

around 200 degrees Celsius. When temperatures increase higher than this, the Van’t

Hoff equation states that the equilibrium is unfavorable. However, a high temperature

is required to produce a reaction at the rate necessary. Because of the compromise in

temperature, the reaction does not occur at the most rapid pace. An increase in

pressure can be applied to favor the forward reaction because the entropy of the

equation tells us that there are four reactant moles for every two product moles. High

amounts of energy are required for this to take place and special accommodations are

far as equipment, regulations, and safety precautions must be made. Therefore, a

catalyst must be introduced. A catalyst is used in order to lower the activation energy,

the energy required to break the nitrogen and hydrogen bonds. Traditionally, the

catalyst used in this process was osmium, unfortunately, available in small quantities

only. The discovery of an iron based catalyst, from iron powder which has been finely
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ground, reduced, and oxidized was the solution. Today, a heterogeneous catalyst that is

typically formed from the iron in magnetite is now used to allow the reduction in the

temperature needed for a reaction. A low temperature and higher pressure yields the

largest proportion of ammonia. Typically, the reaction occurs around 500 degrees

Celsius and 250 atm. The reaction is a gaseous equilibrium equation, where energy is

released, causing an exothermic reaction. One mole of nitrogen gas and three moles of

hydrogen gas produce two moles of ammonia gas. Due to Avogadro’s Law, equal

volumes of gas at the same temperature and pressure contain comparable numbers of

molecules. If ammonia is removed, an equilibrium occurs which pushes the reaction

back to the products, increasing production (“The Haber-Bosch Process”). As a whole,

the process is efficient with a yield of ten to twenty percent. If the process is

continually run, the unreacted nitrogen and hydrogen can be effectively “recycled”,

leading to a 98% yield.

Nitrogen fertilizers have been able to increase crop yields for consumption by

humans and animals over six times what was being produced in the 1930s

(Louchheim). While the Haber-Bosch process is used to increase food production, it

may have been too successful in its job. The global population has increased

exponentially since the process was implemented because more food is afforded. The

Haber-Bosch process is singlehandedly responsible for five percent of the entire world’s

annual natural gas production and two percent of the world’s annual energy production

(Ritter).
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Ammonia in the air can cause irritation to the eyes, lungs, and the skin. In a

gaseous form, ammonia can destroy the eye and penetrates tissue more rapidly than

other alkalis. When vapor is inhaled, coughing, and difficult or painful breathing,

pulmonary congestion, and in the worst cases, death can happen. Depending upon the

time and concentration of ammonia exposure to skin, human flesh and organs can be

disrupted. Ammonia spreads across the surface it is exposed to until the chemical is

completely diluted by moisture. However, by the time this happens, corrosion of tissue

can occur. Ammonia as a spray is capable of essentially freezing any clothing to skin

and when it is attempted to be removed, it can destroy entire sections of skin

(“Ammonia Refrigeration- Properties of Ammonia”).

The Haber-Bosch process is utilized in a variety of facets outside of the

traditional chemical process that has been discussed previously. Used as a fertilizer,

ammonium sulfate, ammonium phosphate, and ammonium nitrate can be produced.

Urea, which is used to produce sedatives, is made through the reaction of ammonia and

carbon dioxide. The synthesis of nitric acid is used in the production of the explosive,

TNT as well as ammonium nitrate in explosives and hydrazine used in rocket propulsion

systems. In pharmaceuticals, the evolution of bacteria is disabled in sulfonamides.

Folic acid can be biosynthesized as well as anti-malarial and B vitamins, or thiamine. As

a vasodilator, nitroglycerine is synthesized to dilate blood vessels. It is also used to

make nylon and other polyamides. In common households, it can be found in cleaning

products (Stubbings).

While the Haber-Bosch process is largely used today and has been for many years in
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a variety of industries, the implementations of the reaction are common in fertilizers to

grow food and refrigeration elements to keep it cold. It is without a doubt that the

Haber-Bosch process is one of the most important modern technologies. Its use should

not be limited to its current field. In the future, it may be possible to refine the process

in order to diminish the few harmful effects that are caused by its widespread use.

This process, like any other scientific technology, can be used to help or to hurt. Yes,

the process was applied to the making of warfare but it also saved the lives of many

through its usage in farming. This process effectively allowed food production to occur

in a way that prevented global hunger. Scientific discoveries are inherently good in

their trial to address an issue in society. Like genetically modified organisms, the

Haber-Bosch process allows for more economical and widespread food production as

well as an increase in the quality of crops. However, both of these food sciences are

relatively young in the spectra of scientific age, and yet there is much more to learn

about future ramifications for long-term use. However, this should not detract from the

continued use and research of such technologies. Like this process, vaccines were

created in order to prevent the possibility of contracting certain diseases and sparing

the affected individual from painful symptoms. On the other hand, vaccines are now

being used in chemical warfare, much like the aforementioned process to debilitate

societies. While cryogenics may seem like science of the future and a solution to

individual who suffer from currently incurable diseases, it raises ethical and scientific

concerns. As knowledge on the topic is sparse at the time, the concern it that the

process will be used extensively. Cost becomes a factor in the facilities and resources
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needed to ascertain this, but we have no certainty that this process is even effective or

that a cure will be found. Of course, the main concern is for the “patients” undergoing

this process and the moral repercussions of essentially freezing a person in time. Even

cancer therapy can be classified as constructive and destructive. While there is a

treatment and the hope of life for some, for others, this hope is dangerous. It is well-

known that the science behind cancer drugs gives them a potent nature. For many, the

drugs come at a cost, both financially and physically. The sign effects can be

debilitating and only worsen the remaining time for the patient. With all of these

technologies, it is important to weigh the risks and the benefits to conclude if the

science in question is in the best interest of humankind and the world as a whole.

With the wealth of information we know as of now, it is evident that science has

come a long way. Even the Haber-Bosch process itself has undergone change during

its lifespan from its scientific conception before World War I. From osmium to an iron

catalyst, from food production to German war, this process provided for many

applications throughout the years. In the future, there is hope that this science, like any

other will continue to adapt with changes in the needs of society and the science of the

time. It is certain that without this process, our world would not be able to sustain the

population nearly as well as we currently do. No system is perfect and it brings forth

concerns regarding long-term solutions, but this science is here to stay and rightfully so

due to its importance. In the end, importance should be placed on its evolution as a

modern technology.
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References

In deciding what sources were of scholarly weight and importance to include in

the research of my paper, I recall the information taught by the school’s librarians.

During this lesson, we learned the “CRAP” method, which stands for currency,

reliability, authority, and purpose. Currency refers to how old a source is. While there

is some weigh to choosing a source that has been in publication for many years and has

a strong basis of knowledge, if the source has not been updated recently it may not

reflect the most current information. In the field of science, it is especially important to

consider currency because of the evolution of technology and information. Reliability

means the source comes from a source that is trusted. For scientific research, it is

important to look for established journals that are peer-reviewed. For information to

achieve this status, it undergoes immense scrutiny and review. In a reliable source, the

information is cited just like a proper research paper. A source can be considered

reliable if it contains little opinion, which cannot be tested by experimentation, as

compared to verifiable information. If three or more sources continue to confirm the

same information, it can be considered reliable. As far as authority is concerned, note

who the author is and where their expertise is coming from. Look for experts in the

field with a strong education behind them. If the creator of the source has an

institutional affiliation, that strengthens the authority. For purpose, determine why the

resource was created as it may be informative or persuasive. Consider the intended

audience for the piece and if the publisher is including bias or attempting to support an

agenda. Be wary of sources that contain ads, especially a multitude of them, as


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sources may be paid by industries to support their product or to convey certain

information.

With all of this being said, I chose my sources based upon this method. A

source I avoided was “Mom of 19 Michelle Duggar: I Don’t Believe in Overpopulation”.

At first glance, even the title does not provide much reassurance that this source is

scholarly. While it is current as far as containing testimony from a current public figure,

that is really all. The source, US Weekly, is not reliable as it holds a reputation as a

tabloid and gossip magazine. There is no authority behind either the topic, Michelle

Duggar, or the publisher, US Weekly. While overpopulation does relate to the Haber-

Bosch process in terms of usage in food production, this source’s purpose is to

entertain, not to educate. I also chose not to use the article from ScienceHeroes.com

for many of the same reasons. At the very top of the page, it says “your vote matters”,

as you scroll down the page, it is evident this page is nothing more than a blog, with

followers and commenters. However, the page discusses little about the process itself

and more about the personal lives of the scientists. As the page looks homemade, the

reliability and authority of the source are questionable. No sources are cited for the

little information that is given. The purpose again is entertainment. The last source I

chose not to use was from NPR, titled, “Science: For Good or Evil”. Unfortunately, this

source is based in opinion and it is titled as commentary. The cartoon of Frankenstein

does not add to the reliability or authority of the source. Again, there are no citations

or sources. The purpose is persuasive as it details the author’s opinion and tries to

convince the audience of the same. There are many ads on the page and the source
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overall is known as National Public Radio and it is just that, public. The commentators

on the piece are not from the scientific community and do not contribute knowledge,

reliability or authority to the piece.

I chose to use “Ammonia Refrigeration-Properties of Ammonia” because not only

is the page up to date with all relevant and recent developments in the field, it is

required to be updated when a new safety concern arises. As a reliable source from

OSHA and the Department of Labor, the information is trustworthy. These entities

allow for a certain reputation when it comes to knowledge. The information provided is

detailed and the original documentation is present for further research. As a whole, a

variety of topics are covered and the material is informative. “Fertilizer History: The

Haber-Bosch Process” is also a reputable source. It is not only current and updated,

but it is published by the Fertilizer Institute, a body of scientists alongside farmers and

food producers. This affiliation ensures reliability and authority. In fact, this source is

educationally based and provides additional resources. From Chemical and Engineering

News and the American Chemical Society, a body of scientists and researchers from

multiple disciplines, Steven Ritter writes informatively about the process. All sources

used by Ritter are cited correctly and reliable. Again, it is a scientific magazine that

seeks to educate.
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Works Cited

"Ammonia Refrigeration - Properties of Ammonia." Occupational Safety and Health

Administration. United States Department of Labor, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.

Clark, Jim. "The Haber Process." ChemGuideUK. N.p., Apr. 2013. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.

"Haber-Bosch Process." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1998.

Web. 07 Dec. 2016.

Louchheim, Justin. "Fertilizer History: The Haber-Bosch Process." The Fertilizer

Institute. N.p., 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.

"Nobel Lecture: The Development of the Chemical High Pressure Method."

NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB, 2014. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.

"Nobel Lecture: The Synthesis of Ammonia from Its Elements." NobelPrize.org. Nobel

Media AB, 2014. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.

" The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2007." NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB, 2014. Web. 07

Dec. 2016.

Ritter, Steven K. "The Haber-Bosch Reaction: An Early Chemical Impact On

Sustainability." Chemical and Engineering News. American Chemical Society, n.d.

Web. 07 Dec. 2016.

Stubbings, Janice. "Uses and Production of Ammonia by the Haber Process." Haber

Process for Ammonia Production Chemistry Tutorial. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec.

2016.

Zmaczynski, Raymond. "The Effect of the Haber Process on Fertilizers." Princeton

University. The Trustees of Princeton University, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.