Fritz Haber was born to a Jewish family in Germany in 1868. He excelled at chemistry, and wrote two textbooks about it. In 1898, he became a professor of chemistry. Along the way, he converted to Christianity and served in the German army, collecting honors.

Haber discovered how to take nitrogen from the air and put it into soil. Nitrogen is essential for plant growth. The atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, but plants can’t absorb it from the air. The only way to get nitrogen into dirt naturally is through lightning strikes, by growing legumes, and by processing nitrates found in bat guano and bird poop. At the time, Germany was importing all their nitrates from South America.

Haber found that by using heat, pressure, and a catalyst, he could turn atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia. Plants can easily convert ammonia to nitrates. Haber’s brother-in-law, also a chemist, figured out how to do this on an industrial scale. It’s called the Haber-Bosch process and it’s still used today. This discovery, dubbed “bread from the air,” is considered one of the most important technological advances of the 20th century. Haber’s breakthrough enabled mass production of fertilizers and led to a massive increase in crops. It sustains the food base for half the world’s population today.

In 1911 the first ammonia plant was built in Germany, producing over 30 tons of fixed nitrogen per day by 1913.    Haber’s discovery helped Germany during WWI by increasing crop yields, especially when embargos halted the flow of nitrates from South America.

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Nitrates are also used to make explosives from gunpowder to bombs. To help his home country, Haber put his mind to producing better explosives. What he discovered changed the course of warfare.

By tweaking the Haber-Bosch process, he was able to turn out massive amounts of poisonous chlorine gas. He figured out how to transport the gas first in canisters and then inside bombs that could be launched.

He was in attendance when it was first tried at Ypres, Belgium, in April 1915.    Thousands of steel cylinders containing chlorine gas had been transported to German positions. Haber calculated the best delivery system was the prevailing winds in Belgium—strong enough to carry the gas away from the German troops, but not so strong they would dissipate the gas. The Germans released more than 168 tons of chlorine gas from nearly 6,000 canisters at sunrise on April 22. A sickly cloud drifted toward the French trenches. The cloud settled over some 10,000 troops. More than half died by asphyxiation within minutes. Chlorine was used again at the Second Battle of Ypres where around 67,000 allied troops died. The next day, Haber’s wife committed suicide in protest.

Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918 amid much controversy because, although he had saved many lives by producing fertilizer in large amounts, he had also launched the world into chemical warfare. Haber defended himself, saying that he thought his invention would hasten the end of the war, and by pointing out that soldiers die equally tragic deaths whether they’re killed by a knight’s lance, a musket ball, or a cloud of gas.

He was crushed that Germany lost the war, and became despondent when Nazis began their terrible rise, targeting Jews, including Haber himself. When asked to fire all of his Jewish employees, he resigned his position in protest and fled to England. He died of heart failure in 1934 at the age of 65.