Thursday, June 05, 2008 6/5/08-Nitrates

In today's encore excerpt--the discovery of a synthetic process for manufacturing nitrates leads directly and immediately to both the global population explosion and to the unprecedented casualty level--23 million people--of World War I:

"For all the ... guns that their factories could produce, Europeans could not manufacture nitrates, the stuff that made gunpowder explode--they had to find it in the natural world. ... Nitrogen is also crucial to the growth of plants. ... [T]he largest sources of naturally occurring nitrates are produced as animal waste. ... Paradoxically then, both the size of the global human population and its ability to conduct modern warfare depended on, and were limited by, nature. That fact led to a global search for naturally occurring deposits of nitrates, mostly in the form of bat and bird guano. ...

"The first clump of Peruvian guano was brought to Europe in 1804 by the German naturalist and world explorer Alexander von Humbolt, and then extracted in ever greater amounts and exported by British merchants. By 1890, the supplies of Peruvian guano were mostly exhausted, but another natural source (sodium nitrate, or 'saltpeter') that could be mined was found in southern Peru; in 1879 Chile had gone to war with Peru to gain control of the sodium nitrate, and exported it to the industrializing world, which used it to make both fertilizer and gunpowder. ...

"In 1909 a chemist named Fritz Haber synthesized ammonia (which contains nitrogen that could be processed into nitrates) in his laboratory, and a year later the issues of industrial production were resolved by Carl Bosch of the German firm BASF. The process of synthesizing ammonia, known as the Haber-Bosch process, shaped the subsequent course of world history.

"The synthesis of ammonia made possible the growth of the world's population. ... [B]y 1900, most of the good arable land in the world was already being farmed, so that increased food production could come most readily from the application of additional fertilizer. ... The Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia made it possible to increase the food supply and support the world's current population of about 6.2 billion people. In other words, in the twentieth century, the population of the world increased from about 1.6 to 6.2 billion largely because of the Haber-Bosch process. That increase in the human population alone makes the twentieth century unique in all of human history. ... More than that, it also made possible the industrial production of explosives, and, because Germany was the first to use this new technology, increased the confidence of its military leaders. And that was to be a crucially important factor contributing to the outbreak of world war in 1914."

Robert B. Marks, The Origins of the Modern World, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007, 157-159.


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