Fritz Haber was a German physical chemist who was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a method of synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen in the air.
He is also recognized for his supervision of the German poison gas program during The First World War, being known as the “father of chemical warfare”.
Early life and Career:
Fritz Haber was born on the 9th of December 1868 in Breslau, now in western Poland. He was the son of a prosperous German chemical merchant. He earned his doctorate in 1891 for research he conducted at the Charlottenberg Technical College in Berlin on the organic compound, piperonal (an aromatic aldehyde). He then took several industrial positions in succession but did not settle and so he attended a semester of study at the Technical College of Zurich. There he learnt about technological applications of scientific principles.
Haber then tried his hand in his father’s business but this also proved unsuccessful so he accepted a position as junior assistant to Ludwig Knorr, a professor at the University of Jena.
Career and Achievements:
In 1894, Haber accepted an assistantship in the Department of Chemical and Fuel Technology at the Fredericiana Technical College in Karlsruhe, where he remained until 1911.
He became a Privatdozent (unsalaried teaching position) in 1896 with a habilitation thesis on the decomposition and combustion of hydrocarbons. He was promoted to an associate professorship in 1898 and published his book “Outline of Technical Chemistry on a Theoretical Basis” the same year.
Haber began also to investigate electrochemistry with research on the reduction of nitrobenzene in 1904. Haber’s research included studying the hydrogen / oxygen fuel cell in 1907, developing the glass electrode in 1909 and also developing an electrode responsive to gaseous oxygen. His electrochemistry book “The Electrolytic Processes of Organic Chemistry” was published in 1910.
By 1905 Haber was investigating gas reactions and this led to his most famous achievement; the synthesis of ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen.
Haber developed a practical economical process using high pressure and catalysts. This method was then scaled up by Carl Bosh, from chemical company Badische Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik (BASF), to the industrial scale continuous catalytic synthesis of ammonia from elemental hydrogen and nitrogen gas (the Haber–Bosch process). The reactants were abundant and inexpensive and the first production plant was producing over 30 tons of fixed nitrogen per day by 1913.
Not only was ammonia used as a raw material in the production of fertilizers, it was also vital in the production of nitric acid. Nitric acid was, in turn, a raw material for the production of chemical high explosives and other munitions.
In 1906 he was promoted to professor and director of the Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Karlsruhe.
Haber was involved in the founding of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in 1911, becoming director of the Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry Institute in 1912.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Haber became responsible for increasing nitric acid production to help the war effort.
He was also involved in the production of poison gas which was used in an attempt to break the deadlock that had developed in the trenches. Haber developed the use of chlorine gas canisters which were first used in the second battle for Ypres in April 1915. Haber was in charge of devising other ‘better’ poisons during the war.
He married Clara Immerwahr, a fellow chemist, in 1901 and they had a son, Hermann. She opposed his work on poison gas and tragically committed suicide with his service revolver in their garden in 1915. He married, for a second time, in 1917 to Charlotte Nathan and they had two children, a son and a daughter. The couple divorced in 1927.
Haber the was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for 1918 for his invention of the Haber–Bosch process, receiving the award after the war in June 1920.
Later Years and Death:
In the 1920’s Haber, alongside Max Born, proposed the Born–Haber cycle as a method for evaluating the lattice energy of an ionic solid.
Haber was unsuccessful with experiments he conducted to obtain gold from sea water though his work paved the way for the extraction of bromine from the ocean.
Haber remained in Germany after the war and resigned from his position in 1933 when the National Socialist Party came to power in Germany.
He moved initially to London and then travelled to Switzerland in January 1934. He died the same year on January 29, 1934 from a heart attack in Basel, Switzerland. His ashes together with his first wife’s ashes were buried together in a cemetery there.