Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber

German physical chemist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1918) for his development of a method of synthesizing ammonia. With Carl Bosch, he invented a process for the large-scale production of ammonia for use in nitrogen fertilizer.

Early life.
Haber was the son of a prosperous chemical merchant. After the usual classical education of the Gymnasium and student years in Berlin, Heidelberg, and Zurich, he entered his father's business, but his impatient spirit soon led to a break.
Deciding on an academic career, he first took up organic chemical research at the University of Jena, but its orthodox methods gave him little satisfaction. Chance brought him at the age of 25 to a junior post at the Technische Hochschule of Karlsruhe, where he immediately threw himself with tremendous zest into the teaching of physical chemistry (a subject in which he was essentially self-taught) and into research. His intensive early researches in electrochemistry and thermodynamics soon gained him the position of professor of physical chemistry (1898). His reputation was much enhanced by his timely book Grundriss der technischen Elektrochemie auf theoretischer Grundlage (1898; "The Theoretical Basis of Technical Electrochemistry") and especially by Thermodynamik technischer Gasreaktionen (1905; The Thermodynamics of Technical Gas Reactions, 1908), a pioneering work that had considerable influence on teaching and research.

In the first decade of the 20th century the rapidly increasing demand for nitrogen fertilizer greatly exceeded the supply, which still came mainly from Chilean nitrate. The problem of utilizing atmospheric nitrogen for this purpose had become of worldwide concern. (See nitrogen fixation.) Haber developed a method for synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, and by 1909 he had established conditions for the large-scale synthesis of ammonia. The process was handed over to Carl Bosch of Badische Anilin- & Soda-Fabrik for industrial development, leading to the Haber-Bosch process. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918.

World War I.
In 1911, at the age of 42, he was appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin, a new research establishment that was to become even more famous than the school he had built up in Karlsruhe. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he immediately placed himself and his laboratory at the service of the government, his first concern being to organize the supply of essential war materiel. After the development of trench warfare he was made head of the chemical-warfare service, and his institute became a major military establishment. He played a leading part in the development of poison gas as a weapon.
The war years were for Haber a period of intense effort motivated by his strong patriotism. He felt the outcome as a personal tragedy. When Germany was required to pay enormous reparations, Haber sought to find a way of extracting gold from seawater. Long efforts ended in 1926 with the conclusion that the gold content of seawater was far less than had been thought. The failure was a bitter disappointment to him, though it had positive results of much scientific value.

Postwar activities.
After the war Haber's institute became the world's leading centre of research in physical chemistry, with a large and distinguished international staff. All his life he had been an advocate of close relations between science and industry, and he now became active in promoting the national organization of research and in fostering friendly relations with foreign scientists. He was much attracted to Japan and in 1930 established the Japan Institute, with headquarters in Berlin and Tokyo, to promote mutual understanding and cultural interests. In Germany he enjoyed the high title of privy councillor (Geheimer Regierungsrat) and was an honorary fellow of leading chemical societies.
The breakup of Haber's institute began in 1933, when, with the rise of the Hitler regime and its anti-Semitic policy, this great German chemist became the "Jew Haber." He resigned in 1933 and accepted an invitation to work at the University of Cambridge. After four months he left to spend the winter in Italy, but on the way he suffered a heart attack in Basel and died there in January 1934.

A striking feature of Haber's life and work was his versatility. He and the institutions he directed contributed in a fundamental way to nearly all the important branches of physical chemistry. In fact, his scientific life reflected the main developments of physical chemistry over a period of 40 years.

Morris Goran, The Story of Fritz Haber (1967), contains an exhaustive bibliography of writings by and relating to Haber.

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