Haber process

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The Haber process, also called the Haber–Bosch process, is the nitrogen fixation reaction of nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas, over an enriched iron or ruthenium catalyst, which is used to produce ammonia.[1][2][3][4] The Haber process is important because ammonia is difficult to produce on an industrial scale, and the fertilizer generated from the ammonia is responsible for sustaining one-third of the Earth's population.[5] Despite the fact that 78.1% of the air we breathe is nitrogen, the gas is relatively unreactive because nitrogen molecules are held together by strong triple bonds. It was not until the early 20th century that this method was developed to harness the atmospheric abundance of nitrogen to create ammonia, which can then be oxidized to make the nitrates and nitrites essential for the production of nitrate fertilizer and explosives.

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History

Early in the twentieth century several chemists tried and failed to produce ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen. The enormous technical problems associated with the process were first solved by German chemist Fritz Haber (with the invaluable help of Robert Le Rossignol, who developed and built the necessary high-pressure devices). They first demonstrated their success in the summer of 1909, producing ammonia from air drop by drop, at the rate of about a cup every two hours. The process was purchased by the German chemical company BASF, which assigned Carl Bosch the difficult task of scaling up Haber's tabletop machine to industrial-level production.[2] Haber and Bosch were later awarded Nobel prizes, in 1918 and 1931 respectively, for their work in overcoming the chemical and engineering problems posed by the use of large-scale, continuous-flow, high-pressure technology. Ammonia was first manufactured using the Haber process on an industrial scale in 1913 in BASF's Oppau plant in Germany. During World War I, production was shifted from fertilizer to explosives, particularly through the conversion of ammonia into a synthetic form of Chile saltpeter, which could then be changed into other substances for the production of gunpowder and high explosives (the Allies had access to large amounts of saltpeter from natural nitrate deposits in Chile that belonged almost totally to British industries; Germany had to produce its own). It has been suggested that without this process, Germany would not have fought in the war,[6] or would have had to surrender years earlier.

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