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How taking nitrogen from the air to make ammonia, which makes fertiliser, has been called the greatest invention of the 20th Century.

Saving lives with thin air - by taking nitrogen from the air to make fertiliser, the Haber-Bosch Process has been called the greatest invention of the 20th Century – and without it almost half the world’s population would not be alive today. Tim Harford tells the story of two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, figured out a way to use nitrogen from the air to make ammonia, which makes fertiliser. It was like alchemy; 'Brot aus Luft', as Germans put it, 'Bread from air'.

Haber and Bosch both received a Nobel prize for their invention. But Haber’s place in history is controversial – he is also considered the 'father of chemical warfare' for his years of work developing and weaponising chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War One.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon

(Photo: A farmer sprays fertiliser. Credit: Remy Gabalda/Getty Images)

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9 minutes

Last on

Tue 15 Nov 2016 23:50GMT

Sources and related links

 

Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, Daniel Charles, HarperCollins, 2005

Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, Vaclav Smil, MIT Press, 2004

The Alchemy of Air, Thomas Hager, Broadway Books, 2009 

Clara Immerwahr

What makes plants grow? 

Haber-Bosch power consumption slashed 

Nitrogen cycle and world food production

 

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