Monday, October 14, 2013

He saved millions and he killed millions…

Nitrogen is a very important element for plants and abundant in the atmosphere. But this nitrogen is pretty inert and hardly available for plants. So when someone invented a process to make nitrogen react at an industrial scale and make a vital compound, he pretty much changed the face of agriculture. The process was of manufacturing Ammonia, a precursor for all fertilizers and the person who invented it was a German, Fritz Haber. Our textbooks immortalize him by teaching us the Haber process of manufacturing ammonia, but this is the story of Haber’s dark side. Although Haber’s process saved millions of people from starvation, Haber cared little about fertilizers. He had pursued cheap ammonia to help Germany build nitrogen explosives during the First World War. His murderous inventions were, not appreciated in his family and more so by his wife Clara Immerwahr, who constantly pleaded with Haber to give up his projects. Clara was the first woman to earn a Ph.D from the prestigious university of Breslau. She supported Haber by translating manuscripts into English and providing technical support for his nitrogen projects. But she refused to help on the bromine projects, because she was aware that the project was meant to develop chemical warfare (which was banned by the Hague Pact). In 1915, Germany tried to shell the Russian army with xylyl bromide, but the temperature in Russia was so cold that the compound froze solid. Haber, abandoned bromine and adopted its cousin chlorine. Haber had replaced bromine with three Chlorine compounds. Grunkreuz ( green cross), blukreuz ( blue cross) and the blistering agent gelbkreuz ( yellow cross) today infamous as mustard gas. The first attack at Ypres, had 5000 Frenchmen burned in a muddy trench. Horrified by her husband’s projects, she pleaded him to stop. When Haber, gave a dinner party on the success of the Ypres attack, Clara was so appalled that she shot herself in the chest, with Fritz’s army pistol. The very next day, without making any funeral arrangements for his wife, Haber left for the eastern front to carry out more attacks. Despite Haber’s chemicals, Germany lost the war and was denounced as a scoundrel nation. After the war in 1919 the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Haber for his process, but a year later he was charged as an international war criminal for prosecuting a campaign of chemical warfare. Humiliated at the huge repatriations Germany had to pay to the allies, Haber spent six futile years trying to extract dissolved gold from the oceans, so that he could pay the repatriations himself.
Haber had also invented an insecticide called Zyklon A. A German company tinkered with his formula after the war, to produce a more efficient second generation gas. Within years the Nazis took over Germany and were gassing millions of Jews with this second Generation gas- Zyklon B. Nazis exiled Haber, for being a Jew and he died in 1934 while travelling to England to seek refuge

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