Nitrogen Family (The traditional name for the elements in Nitrogen’s column, the “pnictogens”, comes from a Greek word for “choking” or “strangling”) P.7 Nitrogen:
Fritz Haber discovered how to convert the Nitrogen in the air into an industrial product. Although nitrogen gas can suffocate those who are unsuspecting, tends to be benign, almost to the point of uselessness. The one important thing it can do is replenish the soil; it is as important to plants as vitamin c is to us. When pitcher plants and venus flytraps catch insects, it is the nitrogen in the bugs that they are after. Even though it makes up 80% of air, it is surprising bad at topping off soil as it rarely reacts with anything and never even becomes “fixed” in the soil. This combination of ineptitude, importance, and plenitude proved a natural target for chemists of an ambitious nature.
Through the many steps that Haber invented to “capture” Nitrogen, he basically would heat the Nitrogen to hundreds of degrees, then inject some hydrogen gas, turn up the pressure to that of a few hundred times greater than the normal air pressure, add some osmium as a catalyst, then after saying some magic words, common air was transmuted into ammonia, NH3, the beginning of all fertilizers. Now, with cheap and industrial fertilizers now available, farmers were no longer limited to mere compost piles and various dungs to nourish their soil. By the time WWI broke out, Haber had probably saved millions from Malthusian starvation, and we can still thank him for feeding most of the world’s 6.7 billion people population today.
What isn’t said though is that Haber did not care about fertilizers, despite what he occasionally said otherwise. He was actually pursuing cheap ammonia to help Germany build Nitrogen explosives. Nitrogen is odorless and colorless and causes no acid buildup in our veins. We easily breathe it in and out, so our lungs feel relaxed, and it snags no trip wires of the mental variety. “It “kills...
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