The Alchemy of Air…

Posted on December 18, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized |

‘how two brilliant innovators helped create the explosives, poison gas and synthetic fuels that enabled despots in a small nation to wage two catastrophic wars.’
The need for such a process was urgent. Agricultural crops required nitrogen, but by the late 19th century the parched flatlands of Chile’s Atacama Desert were the world’s only major source of nitrates, and supplies were running out. With most arable land already cultivated and populations on the rise, a Malthusian nightmare loomed.
 
Thomas Hager, a chemist living in Karlsruhe, invented a method of blending hydrogen and nitrogen in a high-pressure, high-temperature chamber using a metal catalyst. He developed a tabletop model and sold the ammonia production process to the German dye works Badish Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik, known today as BASF…The Haber-Bosch process is still the leading method of making synthetic fertilizer,  Hager, a science writer who previously wrote a biography of Linus Pauling and a book about the discovery of the earliest antibiotics, tells the story of fertilizer well. But it takes up only half the book. The rest focuses on the personalities of Haber and Bosch, and on how their strengths ultimately became fatal weaknesses.
 
Hager describes the development of the Haber-Bosch synthesis, a worthy addition to the growing genre of histories about scientific processes. Finally, the author presents a cautionary tale about the misuse of science in modern times: how two brilliant innovators helped create the explosives, poison gas and synthetic fuels that enabled despots in a small nation to wage two catastrophic wars.
 
The Alchemy of Air is a quick, easy read, aimed at a general — i.e., impatient — audience, there is material here for twice as big a book.

Read full review by Guy Gugliotta, a former Washington Post science reporter. 
 
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