Today in Science History – January 29 – Haber Process

Fritz Haber
Fritz Haber (1868 – 1934)
Nobel Foundation

January 29 marks the passing of Fritz Haber. 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 January 29

1947 – Linda Brown Buck was born.

Buck is an American biologist who studies the olfactory system on a molecular level. She and Richard Axel identified the genes in mice associated with odor receptors. She followed how these receptors detect different odors and how those signals travel to the brain and get identified. This work earned her and Axel the 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

1934 – Fritz Haber died.

1927 – Lewis Urry was born.

Urry was a Canadian chemical engineer who invented the alkaline and lithium battery. While working for the Eveready battery company, he was attempting to extend the life of the current battery technology. He found a combination of manganese dioxide and zinc powder with an alkaline substance outlasted regular carbon-zinc batteries by nearly 40 times. Lithium batteries use lithium as the anode of the battery and can supply higher voltages and last longer than alkaline batteries.

1926 – Abdus Salam was born.

Abdus Salam
Abdus Salam (1926 – 1996)
Dutch National Archive

Salam was a Pakistani physicist that shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for work in postulating the existence of W and Z bosons. W and Z bosons are the elementary particles that mediate the weak nuclear force. He was instrumental in forming Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission and nuclear weapons program.

1859 – William Cranch Bond died.

William Cranch Bond
William Cranch Bond (1789 – 1859)

William Bond was an American astronomer who together with his son, George Bond discovered Saturn’s eighth moon, Hyperion and Saturn’s inner ring named Crepe Ring. He was also one of the first astronomers to catalog stars through photography.

Harvard University sent Bond to Europe in 1815 to learn about European observatories. In 1836, Bond moved his personal collection of astronomy equipment to the University grounds and served as Astronomical Observer to the University. He raised funds to purchase one of the largest telescopes in the world for Harvard. This telescope is still functional to this day.

1838 – Edward Williams Morley was born.

Edward Williams Morley
Edward Williams Morley (1838 – 1923)

Morley was an American scientist best known for his extremely accurate measurement of the atomic weight of oxygen. Atomic masses used to be measured based on oxygen having an atomic mass of exactly 16. This practice made sense until isotopes were discovered. Morley was studying the gases that made up Earth’s atmosphere and their weights. He spent eleven years improving the accuracy of his equipment until he produced an atomic weight measurement accurate to 1 part in 10,000.

Morley attempted with A. A. Michelson to detect the ‘aether’ in the Michelson/Morley experiment. The experiment was designed to provide proof of the existence of a luminiferous aether that propagated lightwaves through space. The null results of this experiment would eventually lead to Einstein’s theory of relativity.