This book about the Haber-Bosch process touches on scientific discovery, engineering, agriculture, war, and politics. The process extracts nitrogen from the air and converts it to ammonia, which can then be converted to fertilizers and other products.

  • Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are essential elements for agriculture. Nitrogren is so important that the author says, “the secret of successful farming is moving nitrogen around” (xiii). For most of human history that meant using manure and compost to enrich soil.
  • Deposits of nitrogen in the form of guano were mined from South America and used to redistribute soil fertility around the world (p. 9). Germans were the most efficient transporting it without delays (p. 33). Shipping guano from South America to Europe was so important that the first major sea battle of WWI occurred off the coast of Chile (p. 141).
  • Bosch was the perfect leader to transform Haber’s method from a scientific discovery into a scaled industrial process: “Even the accidents were useful. The equipment designers removed the broken machines, autopsied them, and used what they found to make better models.” (p. 107)
  • The first scaled Haber-Bosch plant at Oppau was “a single machine as big as a town.” (p. 129) “Bosch had done everything he could to maximize efficiency and cut the cost of production…. Oppau had barely reached full production before Bosch was planning an expansion…. It was the birth of an entirely new technology, high-pressure chemistry” (p. 130-31).
  • In order to find the best catalyst for converting nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia, Alwin Mittasch ran “about twenty thousand experiments,” and designed new machines to allow him to run the tests quickly (p. 111).
  • Haber-Bosch is a dual-use technology: it can be used for fertilizers, but it can also be used to create explosives (recall that the Oklahoma City bomb used fertilizer as its raw materials). During WWI this led to a literal guns-and-butter (or bombs-and-beets) trade-off: “The more fixed nitrogen that went to bombs, the less there was for farmers” (p. 146).
  • The book is also an unique perspective on inter-war German political economy, including the rise of the Nazi party and the cooptation of German industry (p. 235ff.).