Fritz Haber
November 21, 2006 5:07 AM   Subscribe

Fritz Haber's story is the story of the double edged sword of science. He won the Nobel prize in 1918 for his groundbreaking work in breaking the nitrogen cycle for Germany's WWI efforts, but it's been estimated that two out of every five people now living would not have been born if it weren't for artificial fertilizers created using his process. He also spent much of the war developing poison gases; first chlorine (after watching its first use, Haber's wife committed suicide) and later Zyklon B (the cyanide insecticide later used against his fellow Jews in concentration camps). He died alone and in poverty in Switzerland. But the lessons of his life haven't quite been forgotten.
posted by Plutor (17 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

A similar Frankensteinian inventor is Thomas Midgley, who invented freon which destroys the Ozone Layer and also leaded gasoline, perhaps the worst polluting invention in history. It's estimated that if freon was invented 50 years earlier (very possible) we would all be dead by now as the technology to detect the destruction of the ozone layer would have been discovered too late. Midgley is said to be the single worst polluting organism in earths history. Midgely contracted polio late in life and invented a system of cables and pulleys to lift himself off the bed - he ended up strangling himself to death.
posted by stbalbach at 5:39 AM on November 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

The interesting thing about freon is that he invented it as a sort of me-culpa for leaded gasoline. It replaced older, toxic refrigerants that would kill people in their sleep if leaked.

Also, wasn't the real problem using freon as a propellant in aerosol cans and so forth?
posted by delmoi at 5:50 AM on November 21, 2006

Chlorofluorocarbons (such as the freons) caused problems if released into the atmosphere in any way. I think aerosols were probably the biggest contributor, but malfunctioning and discarded refrigerators and AC units were certainly a significant factor, too.
posted by Plutor at 5:54 AM on November 21, 2006

CFCs had many uses, including industrial solvents, dry-cleaning, and blown foam products. stats Aerosol propellants were roughly 40% of the use, possibly much higher as a percentage of atmospheric release, especially after 1974. Blown foam products was a bigger percentage of use but possibly a slower source of release.

Some chipmakers still use CFCs (the less-active varieties) as the industrial phase-out is not yet complete, and will not be until 2030. Many of these processes have been modified for recovery to minimize release effects.
posted by dhartung at 6:54 AM on November 21, 2006

after watching its first use, Haber's wife committed suicide

This appears to be an invention of the movie for dramatic effect, to judge from the links; the review of the biography just says:
His first wife, Clara, was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Breslau. Yet from all appearances, his forceful, domineering personality subsumed Clara's own quest for an academic career and left her depressed and bitter; she eventually commited suicide.
Very interesting stuff—thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 6:54 AM on November 21, 2006

Interestingly, there's a fair amount of research going on regarding the development of less energy-intensive catalytic processes for the production of nitrogen products from N2. The Haber-Bosch process, which uses an iron catalyst, has some pretty extreme requirements: 450-650C and 200-300 atm. This consumes near 1% of the world’s energy. Dimitry Yandulov and Richard Schrock recently came up with a method using a molybdenum catalyst that's ~66% efficient and works at 1atm and room temperature. Nothing's quite as good as biological nitrogenases, which also often have molybdenum centers, but if the Yandulov/Schrock method or something similar can be scaled up to industrial levels, it could save a lot of energy.
posted by ubersturm at 7:38 AM on November 21, 2006

Any reason we can't stick a plasmid in some bacteria and let them do the nitrogen fixing?
posted by Mister_A at 8:01 AM on November 21, 2006

Any reason we can't stick a plasmid in some bacteria and let them do the nitrogen fixing?

Maybe because genetic engineering isn't like automotive engineering?
posted by delmoi at 8:15 AM on November 21, 2006

Fun Facts: The only death at Bill Graham's Fillmore East was from some dood with a raging ice cream headache from huffing freon.

And now back to our topic which is already in progress...
posted by hal9k at 8:44 AM on November 21, 2006

Excellent post. Thanks.
posted by tkchrist at 9:38 AM on November 21, 2006

Excellent essay on Haber by Steven Shapin.
posted by Mocata at 10:02 AM on November 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Mister_A writes "Any reason we can't stick a plasmid in some bacteria and let them do the nitrogen fixing?"

I think it would be pretty simple to develop a bacterial system to fix nitrogen; the issue is developing a system that could compete with the Haber process in terms of throughput and overall cost. The energy inputs for such a system might be lower, but you need to worry about sterile conditions, etc.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:11 PM on November 21, 2006

Well, the problem with Freon in AC units wasn't is use, but rather that is was not reclaimed. In an AC, Freon runs in a closed system. If there's a leak, all the coolant must be removed in order to fix it, then new coolant added. In the bad ol' days, this meant just opening up a valve and releasing all that R-22 freon into the atmosphere. These days - and for 20 years or so - it is required by law that the freon me reclaimed.
posted by absalom at 4:43 PM on November 21, 2006

Haber's story is told as a pivotal step in man's death by corn, in the first few chapters of this book.
posted by ericbop at 5:28 PM on November 21, 2006

ericbop: Coincidentally, that's exactly where I was introduced to Hager.
posted by Plutor at 4:26 AM on November 22, 2006

posted by Plutor at 4:27 AM on November 22, 2006

Mister_A: I don't study nitrogenases, but there're a lot of possible explanations. For example, it's possible that overexpressing a nitrogenase gene using a plasmid might have unhealthy side-effects for the microorganism (that is, too much ammonia might eventually kill it, or too many cellular resources [ATP, particularly] would be used), and the amount of ammonia we could harvest before killing the cells might not be worth the effort. On the other hand, in organisms that naturally have nitrogenases, the ammonia becomes ammonium, which is used in glutamate synthase (for diazotrophs) or other biosynthetic pathways. If it's used almost immediately, ammonia [or other simple nitrogen products] may not be any easier to extract from these systems than it is from any other organism - there won't be much ammonia or ammonium sitting around for us to extract. So nitrogenases are great way to get nitrogen out of its dinitrogen form and into biomatter in some form or other (although it's still energy-intensive on a bacterial level), but they're not necessarily well-suited for producing ammonia [or similar simple nitrogen-containing compounds] for us on an industrial scale, because of expense, difficulty, or yield.

[This is all speculation on my part, but something along those lines is probably why we don't currently use nitrogenases for the industrial-scale fixation of nitrogen.]
posted by ubersturm at 7:06 AM on November 28, 2006

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