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Summary Article: Haber, Fritz (1868-1934)
From The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: Germany

Subject: biography, chemistry

German chemist who made contributions to physical chemistry and electrochemistry, but who is best remembered for the Haber process, a method of synthesizing ammonia by the direct catalytic combination of nitrogen and hydrogen. For this outstanding achievement he was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize for Chemistry (presented in 1919).

Haber was born on 9 December 1868 in Bresslau, Silesia (now Wrocław, Poland), the son of a dye manufacturer. He was educated at the local school and at the universities of Berlin (under August von Hofmann) and Heidelberg (where he was a student of Robert Bunsen). He completed his undergraduate studies at the Technische Hochschule at Charlottenburg, where he carried out his first research in organic chemistry. After spending some time working for three chemical companies, he briefly entered his father's business, but after only a few months Haber returned to organic chemistry research at Jena.

He then obtained a junior post at Karlsruhe Technische Hochschule, becoming an unpaid lecturer there in 1896. He held the professorship of physical chemistry and electrochemistry at Karlsruhe from 1906 until 1911, by which time his reputation had grown to such an extent that he was made director of the newly established Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry at Berlin-Dahlem. During World War I he placed the institute's resources in the hands of the government and, being a staunch patriot, was bitterly disappointed by Germany's defeat in 1918. Then when Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933 even Haber's genius and patriotism could not compensate for his Jewish ancestry and he was forced to seek exile in the UK, where he worked for a few months at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. Shortly afterwards, while on holiday in Switzerland, he died of a heart attack in Basel on 29 January 1934.

During the late 1890s Haber carried out important researches in thermodynamics and electrochemistry, studying particularly electrode potentials and the processes that occur at electrodes. He was an early, but largely unsuccessful, pioneer of fuel cells in which the electric current was produced by the atmospheric oxidation of carbon or carbon monoxide. He also worked on the electrodeposition of iron, which had applications in the making of plates for printing banknotes. His work during this period culminated with the publication of two influential books: The Theoretical Bases of Technical Electrochemistry (1898) and The Thermodynamics of Technical Gas Reactions (1905).

Haber used his extensive knowledge and experience of thermodynamics in his investigations of the synthesis of ammonia by the catalytic hydrogenation of atmospheric nitrogen. Although from 1904 he made extensive free energy calculations and performed many experiments, it was not until 1909 that the process was ready for industrial development under Carl Bosch. Haber's early successful experiments used osmium or uranium catalysts at a temperature of 550°C/1,022°F (823K) and 150-200 atmospheres of pressure (2.2-2.9 × 103 psi/1.5-2.0 × 107 Pa). Later industrial processes used higher pressures and slightly lower temperatures, with finely divided iron as the catalyst. The nitrogen from air was compressed with producer gas (the source of hydrogen) and the ammonia formed was removed as a solution in water. In this version it is also known as the Haber-Bosch process.

At Karlsruhe Haber continued his work in electrochemistry and in 1909 constructed the first glass electrode (which measures hydrogen ion concentration - acidity, or pH - by monitoring the electrode potential across a piece of thin glass). One of his first tasks after the outbreak of World War I in 1914 was to devise a method of producing nitric acid for making high explosives, using ammonia from the Haber process (to make blockaded Germany independent of supplies of Chilean saltpetre - sodium nitrate). Later he became involved in the gas offensive and superintended the release of chlorine into the Allied trenches at Ypres. When the French later retaliated by using phosgene (carbonyl chloride, whose production was in the hands of Victor Grignard), Haber was given control of the German Chemical Warfare Service, with the rank of captain, and organized the manufacture of lethal gases. He was also responsible for the training of personnel and developed an effective gas mask.

After the war Haber set himself the task of extracting gold from sea water to help to pay off the debt demanded by the Allies in reparation for the damage caused during the hostilities. Svante Arrhenius had calculated that the sea contains 8,000 million tonnes of gold. The project got as far as the fitting out of a ship and the commencement of the extraction process, but the yields were too low and the project was abandoned in 1928.

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