Today In Science History – December 9 – Fritz Haber and Ammonia

Fritz Haber
Fritz Haber (1868 – 1934)
Nobel Foundation

December 9 is Fritz Haber’s birthday. Haber was a German chemist who discovered a process to create ammonia from atmospheric gases.

The Haber-Bosch process is a reaction that fixes nitrogen to form ammonia (NH3) from nitrogen gas (N2) and hydrogen gas (H2) under pressure over an iron catalyst. Haber discovered the process on a laboratory scale using tabletop lab equipment. German chemical engineer Carl Bosch converted the laboratory equipment to be used on large scale industrial equipment. The process would earn both Haber and Bosch Nobel Prizes in Chemistry (1918 and 1931 respectively).

Modern farming uses a lot of fertilizers to increase crop yields. Prior to Haber’s discovery, much of this fertilizer came from guano islands in South America. Countries fought wars over tiny islands covered with accumulated bird and bat excrement. The Haber-Bosch process eliminated the need for this source of fixed nitrogen. Today, the Haber-Bosch process accounts for 100 million tons of fertilizer per year.

Notable Science History Events for December 9

2012 – Patrick A. C. Moore died.

Moore is an English author and amateur astronomer and the famous face of the BBC program The Sky at Night. He is credited with raising general awareness, popularity and education for astronomy in Britain.

1937 – Nils Gustaf Dalén died.

Nils Gustaf Dalén
Nils Gustaf Dalén (1869 – 1937)

Dalén was a Swedish industrialist and inventor who was awarded the 1912 Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the automatic sun valve. This device regulated a gaslight lamp’s fuel through the action of sunlight, turning it on when it was dark, and off again at dawn. It was quickly adopted in ocean buoys and lighthouses. He lost his eyesight while working on one of his other inventions, but managed to continue inventing until his death.

1935 – Lafayette Benedict Mendel died.

Lafayette Mendel
Lafayette Mendel (1872 – 1935)
Library of Congress

Mendel was an American biochemist who, together with Thomas B. Osborne discovered vitamins A and B, lysine and tryptophan and their role in nutrition. They also studied the toxin ricin from castor beans.

1926 – Henry Way Kendall was born.

Kendall was an American physicist who shares the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics with Jerome Isaac Friedman and Richard E. Taylor for discovering evidence proving the existence of quarks. They used high energy electron beams targetted at protons and neutrons and investigated the scattering from the collisions. They found both protons and neutrons were not solid balls of matter but made up of smaller particles.

1917 – James Rainwater was born.

James Rainwater
James Rainwater (1917 – 1986)

Rainwater was an American physicist who shares the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physics with Aage Bohr and Ben Mottelson for their work on determining the structure and shape of atomic nuclei. He theorized that some atomic nuclei were not spherical as standard models predicted. Bohr and Mottelson verified the theory.

1919 – William Nunn Lipscomb, Jr. was born.

William Nunn Lipscomb Jr.
William Nunn Lipscomb Jr. (1919 – 2011)

Lipscomb was an American chemist who was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on boranes and his contributions to the understanding of chemical bonds. Boranes are molecules made up of boron and hydrogen. Stable boranes do not follow the standard electron pair sharing bonding scheme since they do not possess the requisite number of electrons. Lipscomb showed these compounds could share electrons across three atoms to form stable bonds.

1868 – Fritz Haber was born.

1748 – Claude Louis Berthollet was born.

Claude Louis Berthollet
Claude Louis Berthollet (1748 – 1822)

Berthollet was a French chemist who introduced the use of chlorine-based bleach as a dye. He also argued against the law of definite proportions where chemicals combine in whole number ratios. Non-stoichiometric compounds are called berthollides in his honor.

Berthollet passed gaseous chlorine through a solution of sodium carbonate (Na2CO3) to form a solution of sodium hypochlorite (NaClO). Sodium hypochlorite is what we know as ‘bleach’ today. He also discovered potassium chlorate (KClO3) or ‘Berthollet’s Salt’ and was the first to determine the composition of ammonia (NH3).

1742 – Carl Wilhelm Scheele was born.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele
Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742 – 1786)

Scheele was a German-Swedish apothecary who independently discovered oxygen. Joseph Priestly is also credited with this discovery since be published his findings first. He also discovered barium, manganese, molybdenum, tungsten, and chlorine.

1703 – Chester Moor Hall was born.

Hall was an English mathematician who developed the achromatic lens. Glass lenses would refract light by different amounts for different color light, resulting in blurry images in the telescope. The achromatic lens would correct the color distortion problem and greatly improve telescopes.