Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

During the First World War, Imperial Germany was cut off from its sources of fixed nitrogen (mainly Chilean saltpeter and bat guano which it needed to make gunpowder). The ingenious Fritz Haber invented the direct conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia using hydrogen gas. Haber won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this feat, despite Germany having lost the war and despite Haber's wartime culpability in making things like chlorine and phosgene gases for trench warfare (out of fairness, note that Nobel Laureate Victor Grignard headed up the French contingent of poison-gas warriors). The commercial Haber-Bosch process literally enabled the subsequent worldwide population bloom known as the Green Revolution, though it was reduced to practice by the likes of Norman Borlaug. The Haber-Bosch process is still used today, highly refined, but essentially unchanged. A "Holy Grail" of modern catalytic chemistry is to invent new catalysts that work at normal pressures and temperatures.

During the Second World War, coal-rich Nazi Germany was cut off from commercial sources of crude oil, which it needed to wage highly mechanized warfare. The ingenious Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch had invented and developed the conversion of coal to liquid hydrocarbons in the 1920's. Their technology was scaled up and used to augment military and domestic liquid fuel supplies. Fischer and Tropsch did not win a Nobel Prize for this feat, perhaps because Fischer died in 1947 (Tropsch had died in 1935). The commercial Fischer-Tropsch process is still practiced worldwide, and could play a greater role for our coal-rich nation, but not under the present Administration, which prefers alternatives.

Among the alternatives is the photochemical conversion of carbon dioxide to a reduced product such as carbon monoxide. link This technology, coupled with existing "syn-gas" technology for converting carbon monoxide and hydrogen (derived from water) to hydrocarbons, is another "Holy Grail."  These research efforts have a way of ramping up as the relative price of crude oil increases and remains high. We may be entering such a phase.


  1. This is fascinating stuff man. Hopefully we can keep honoring the "ingenious" Mr. Fischer and Trophsch in future administrations :)

  2. Hopefully we can keep honoring the "ingenious" Mr. Fischer and Trophsch in future administrations :)

    The coal isn't going anywhere so yeah, it could happen if push came to shove.

    A 60 page outline of the DOE's forward plan on energy in America just landed on my desk and I need to digest and critique.

    Thanks for the comment Candle. :)

  3. @Candle: BTW, Franz Fischer was no Nazi. He refused to join the NSPD and even mocked the "Heil Hitler" salute at his institute which he headed.

  4. I thought that Fischer was a Jew and thus ineligible for membership in the Nazi Party?? Of course that would add fuel to the need to mock the Party of such intellectual luminaries as Horst Wessel.

  5. I thought that Fischer was a Jew and thus ineligible for membership in the Nazi Party??

    Not to my knowledge. I worked at that Institute briefly in 90's and acquired a bunch of German language books on the period and the institute. We called it KoFo for short which stands for Kohlenforschung (coal research)

    The name Fischer is pretty common in Germany and there even a couple famous chemists with that name. Franz Fischer retired as head of the KoFo Institute in mid-war (1943)for health reasons. If he was Jewish, it was a secret.