Book Summary: “Alchemy of Air” by Thomas Hager


Title: The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler
Author: Thomas Hager
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Hager explores the invention of the Haber-Bosch process in 1909 and explains how critical it has been to world health and economic development.

Key Take-aways

  • About half the nitrogen in your body came out of a Haber-Bosch factory.
  • Without these plants, somewhere between two billion and three billion people—about 40 percent of the world’s population—would starve to death
  • Nitrogen is a critical constraint on agriculture and therefore on the development of societies.
  • Nitrogen makes up 78.09% of the air we breath, but in that state it is useless to plants and animals.
  • In the late 19th Century, European agriculture seemed to be tapping out its potential because of a critical lack of naturally-occurring nitrogen. If not corrected, this could have led to the worst famine in European history.
  • For a time, importing guano (bird droppings) from the Pacific islands and then nitrate from Peru staved off the crisis.
  • Only with the invention of the Haber-Bosch process in Germany was the threat of famine finally staved off.
  • With the outbreak of World War I, nitrogen for rifles and artillery made the construction of the first large-scale Haber-Bosch factory vital to national security.
  • Haber-Bosch plants were critical to the “Green Revolutions”, which dramatically increased food production in China, India and most of the rest of the world.

Important Quotes from Book

“This is the story of two men who invented a way to turn air into bread, built factories the size of small cities, made enormous fortunes, helped engineer the deaths of millions of people, and saved the lives of billions more.

Their work stands, I believe, as the most important discovery ever made. See if you can think of another that ranks with it in terms of life-and-death importance for the largest number of people. Put simply, the discovery described in this book is keeping alive nearly half the people on earth.”

“But the most important element in many ways for humans is the fourth most common in our bodies—and the hardest to find in nature (at least in forms we can use): nitrogen. ”

“The absolute necessity of nitrogen for life leads to a paradox: We are swimming in nitrogen, but we can never get enough. Nitrogen gas makes up almost 80 percent of the earth’s atmosphere. We breathe it in and breathe it out all day long. But none of this huge store of atmospheric nitrogen—not a single atom of it—can nourish any plant or animal. It is inert, unavailable, dead. Plants and animals, including require nitrogen in a different form, a form scientists call fixed nitrogen. The availability, or more commonly lack, of fixed nitrogen is so important that it serves as a cap on life on earth, a “limiting factor” for plant systems (and hence for animals as well, since all animals depend in one way or another on plant eaters). Put in simple agricultural terms, if you put more fixed nitrogen on a field, you can grow more. Farmers have long been nitrogen experts, feeding their fields with rotting plants (compost rich with fixed nitrogen) and animal dung (manures rich with fixed nitrogen), and rotating their crops, growing peas and beans every few years because these plants carry bacteria on their roots that make fixed nitrogen available. The secret of successful farming is moving nitrogen around.

Over our heads is a vast vault of unusable nitrogen; under our feet, a limited amount of fixed nitrogen. ”

“The reason is the Haber-Bosch system. Haber-Bosch plants are why food today is so plentiful and so relatively cheap.”

“As a species we long ago passed the natural ability of the planet to support us with food. ”

Guano:

“THE GUANO BOOM was on. Guano, this “best of all possible manures” became “like a necessity of life to us,” wrote a British farmer, “an all but indispensable fertilizer.” A U.S. expert estimated it was thirty-five times more powerful than standard barnyard manure. ”

Nitrate:

“Peru ceded to the victor all of its nitrate-rich desert, including the Tarapacá, as spoils of war. This meant that after 1881, Chile had sole control over the world’s only significant deposits of the world’s most valuable natural resource. It would be as if, today, a single nation controlled all the oil wells in the world.

Chile was about to become rich”

“By 1900, Chile was producing two-thirds of all the fertilizer used on earth.”

Haber-Bosch:

“BASF, for instance, was an early example of a multinational corporation, dependent on international sales, investing in companies in other nations (like the Norwegian arc process) with sales staffs salted around the world. It was also a progenitor of today’s high-tech companies. As science moved forward, BASF had to move forward just as fast or risk losing its competitive edge. Chemistry at the end of the nineteenth century was racing at top speed. Discovery fueled discovery, every new finding, new theory, and new process informing and hastening the next. Chemists had become experts at manipulating molecules, changing old ones, making new ones, and every new molecule held the potential of huge profits but—and this was a key “but” that Brunck understood—only for a short time. Chemistry was unleashed; there was no holding back the pace of scientific discovery. Most leading chemists worked in universities, dedicated to open communication, quick publication, lectures at international meetings, and informal communication through letters. Nothing was a secret for long. Any breakthrough made in one laboratory would soon be duplicated or improved in another.”

“Under Bosch’s direction BASF’s nitrogen project was growing into the biggest scientific effort in history, comparable in scale to the Manhattan Project in World War II.”

“The German military began scouring the nation for Chilean nitrates, confiscating industrial holdings, raiding warehouses, and looting agricultural depots. They bought all the nitrates they could from neutral countries. They got a break when they captured Antwerp and found a warehouse full of thousands of tons of Chilean fertilizer. It was enough to keep them going but not for long. In November 1914 the Germans estimated that twenty-nine kilotons of fixed nitrogen would make enough gunpowder to supply the military through an entire year of warfare. A year later, as the war dragged on, they were burning that much every ten weeks. A year after that, with the war still going, every five weeks. The side that won would be the side with greatest access to fixed nitrogen.

“By 1918, running at full capacity, Leuna had become Germany’s industrial marvel. It was bigger than any Ford plant. It used technology that no one else could duplicate. It kept Germany in the war. Some historians have estimated that World War I would have ended a year, perhaps two years sooner, if Haber-Bosch had not been able to make the nitrates needed for explosives.”

“After the war Speer testified that if the Allies had done nothing but destroy Leuna and the other synthetic fuel plants by bombing them day and night, the war would have been over in eight weeks.”

“Despite everything, by 1961 an estimated thirty million Chinese had died from malnutrition. Instead of a great leap forward, Mao had triggered China’s great famine, the worst mass starvation in recorded history.

China’s leaders retrenched, stepping back to more traditional, more productive farming methods, and managing for the most part to recover. Ten years later, however, it looked like another disaster was coming. No matter how much food Chinese farms produced, it disappeared into the mouths of the plant’s fastest-growing population. It was impossible for farmers to keep up with population growth. By the early 1970s most Chinese were relegated to eating a maintenance diet of rice plus a few vegetables. Meat was becoming a luxury. Food rationing was practiced in major cities. The average diet in China in 1970 was worse than it had been a generation earlier. All it would take was one big flood, one long drought, to tip the world’s most populous nation into another mass famine.

That was thirty-five years ago. Today, China is battling a significant increase in obesity. The difference is Haber-Bosch.

“The first major commercial transaction the Chinese government made after Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to Beijing was to order thirteen of the world’s biggest, most modern Haber-Bosch fixed-nitrogen plants. It was the biggest business deal the Chinese had made with the West since the communists came to power. The machinery was delivered and built, the Chinese were trained to operate it, and within a few years the amount of fertilizer available in China more than doubled. Agricultural production shot up. More fertilizer plants were built.

Today China is both the world’s single largest producer and the world’s largest consumer of synthetic fertilizer.”

“This huge, almost invisible industry is feeding the world. Without these plants, somewhere between two billion and three billion people—about 40 percent of the world’s population—would starve to death.”

“While the population nearly quadrupled during the twentieth century, food production—thanks first to Haber-Bosch, second to improved genetic strains of rice and wheat—increased more than sevenfold. That is the simple math behind today’s era of plenty.

A more personal way of gauging the impact of Haber-Bosch is to look at your own body. About half the nitrogen in you came out of a Haber-Bosch factory”

“Haber-Bosch turbocharged the process. Today, Haber-Bosch plants produce an amount of fixed nitrogen equivalent to that produced naturally, doubling the amount available on earth”

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