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What is the Haber-Bosch Process?

Michael Anissimov
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Sometimes called the most important technological advance of the 20th century, the Haber-Bosch process allows the economical mass synthesis of ammonia (NH3) from nitrogen and hydrogen. It was developed a little before World War I by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, who were German chemists. Haber won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for his discoveries, and Bosch shared a Nobel Prize with Friedrich Bergius in 1931 for his work on high-pressure chemical reactions. A German national secret at first, the chemistry and techniques behind the effective synthesis of ammonia spread to the rest of the world during the 1920s and 1930s.

High Pressure, High Temperatures

Ammonia is important because it is the primary ingredient in artificial fertilizers, without which modern agricultural yields would be impossible. Sometimes called the Haber ammonia process, the Haber-Bosch process was the first industrial chemical process to make use of extremely high pressures: 200-400 atmospheres. In addition to high pressures, the process also uses high temperatures of about 750°-1,200° Fahrenheit (about 400°-650° Celsius). The efficiency of the reaction is a function of pressure and temperature; greater yields are produced at higher pressures and lower temperatures within the necessary range.

History

During the first decade of the 20th century, the artificial synthesis of nitrates was being researched because of fears that the world's supply of fixed nitrogen was declining rapidly relative to the demand. Nitrogen in its inactive, atmospheric gas form is very plentiful, but agriculturally useful "fixed" nitrogen compounds were harder to come by at that time. Agricultural operations require liberal amounts of fixed nitrogen to produce good yields. At the beginning of the 20th the century, all the world's developed countries were required to mass import nitrates from the largest available source — saltpeter (NaNO3) from Chile — and many scientists were worried about the declining supply of nitrogen compounds.

The Haber-Bosch process provided a solution to the shortage of fixed nitrogen. Using extremely high pressures and a catalyst composed mostly of iron, critical chemicals used in both the production of fertilizers and explosives were made highly accessible to Germany, making it possible for that country to continue fighting in World War I. As the Haber-Bosch process branched out in global use, it became the primary procedure responsible for the production of chemical fertilizers.

Current Production

In the early 21st century, the Haber-Bosch process was used to produce more than 500 million tons (453 billion kilograms) of artificial fertilizer per year. About 1 percent of the world's energy was used to produce it, and it sustained about 40 percent of the Earth's population.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov , Writer
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated About Mechanics contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.

Discussion Comments

By anon128901 — On Nov 21, 2010

Far more ammonia is used mixed with other compounds. 20 percent of fertilizer in the US is just ammonia.

By anon47161 — On Oct 02, 2009

This process is the many reason for rapid world population development.

By anon29958 — On Apr 11, 2009

When one sees tractors in the field pulling a pressurized anhydrous ammonia bullet (which looks like a propane bullet)together with their tillage equipment this anhydrous ammonia is applied directly as a gas or as an autocooled liquid (if the equipment has a liquid kit). The ammonia gas immediately dissolves into the soil moisture and usually very little is lost to the atmosphere as a gas.

By anon27552 — On Mar 02, 2009

Ammonia is a gas in its natural state (boiling point = -33 C). In fertilizers, ammonia is first turned into urea which typically used as the nitrogen source.

By anon18851 — On Sep 30, 2008

How much does 1% of the world's energy translated into petroleum products?

By anon14624 — On Jun 20, 2008

Ammonia is probably more frequently used in agriculture as a fertilizer in a dry form (anhydrous ammonia) by itself -- unmixed.

By anon12130 — On Apr 30, 2008

it is used blended with other nutrients and fillers

By anon8640 — On Feb 18, 2008

Is ammonia used on its own as as fertilizer, or in a mix?

Michael Anissimov

Michael Anissimov

Writer

Michael Anissimov is a dedicated About Mechanics contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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