This summer marks the centenary of a demonstration by Fritz Haber which showed, for the first time in public, the exothermic equilibrium reaction that would break the strong triple bonds of nitrogen and pair it with hydrogen to create ammonia. When oxidized, ammonia can be used to make fertilizer, explosives, and other products.
It was the touchstone process, that, when industrialized with the help of methane by Carl Bosch, led to the Green Revolution. It was the beginning of a transformation of agriculture that today easily supports the lives of more than a third of the world’s population.
In fact, industrial nitrogen is the primary reason why some say the Earth can support up to 10 billion people. But even after decades of improvements in efficiency and chemical process, industrial nitrogen still has unsolved problems. Not least of which is the propensity for farmers to use too much.
Now we must contend with the consequence of poor nitrogen use.
- Farms in northern China use six times more nitrogen fertilizer per acre than farms in the midwestern U.S.
- Runoff ‘dead zones’ of algal blooms
- Nitrous oxide emissions, which are about 298 times more effective at trapping atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide
- Easy bombs.