- German chemist
whose conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia opened the way for
the synthetic fertilizer industry. His study of the combustion of hydrocarbons
led to the commercial 'cracking' or fractional distillation of natural
oil (petroleum) into its components (for example, diesel, petrol, and
paraffin). In electrochemistry, he was the first to demonstrate that
oxidation and reduction take place at the electrodes; from this he developed
a general electrochemical theory.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Haber was asked to devise a
method of producing nitric acid for making high explosives. Later he
became one of the principals in the German chemical-warfare effort,
devising weapons and gas masks, which led to protests against his Nobel
Haber was born in Bresslau, Silesia (now Wroclaw, Poland), and educated
at Berlin, Heidelberg, and the Berlin Technische Hochschule. He was
professor at Karlsruhe 1906-11, and then was made director of the newly
established Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin.
When Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933, Haber sought exile in Britain,
where he worked at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge.
After World War I, Haber set himself the task of extracting gold from
sea water to help to pay off the reparations demanded by the Allies.
Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius had calculated that the sea contains
8,000 million tonnes of gold. The project got as far as the fitting-out
of a ship and the commencement of the extraction process, but the yields
were too low and the project was abandoned 1928.