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Haber-Bosch Process: Human’s Most Important Invention of the 20th Century

Faculty Supervisor:
Kip Wedel
Year of Project Completion:
2016
Student:
Jacob Miller

Abstract

The 1909 Haber-Bosch process was the single most important capitalist invention in the 20th century for human food consumption, but was also the greatest contributor to the problems of land degradation and overpopulation that we face in contemporary times. Without the Haber-Bosch process, 40 percent of human life would not exist today. It has been a major contributor to the world population boom that is currently at 7.35 billion people and is expected to reach 9 billion in 2050. Grain crops—which account for 70 percent of all human calories grown on 70 percent of the world’s acreage—must fix nitrogen to produce seeds. The soil cannot sustainably house enough naturally-occurring nitrogen to yield as many tons of wheat, corn, soybeans, and rice that will be needed to feed 9 billion mouths. That’s where the Haber-Bosch process comes in. Named after two German scientists, the process fixes atmospheric nitrogen into liquid ammonia. Ammonia is then drenched on grain crops, which, in turn, produces far greater yields. In 2004, Haber-Bosch sustained 2 out of 5 people and soon it will sustain 2 out 3. However, the process also contributes to detrimental effects to the soil—including 30 million acres of soil erosion each year—and water—a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Connecticut. Unpacked are underlying assumptions of ethics in Fritz Haber’s The Thermodynamics of Technical Gas Reactions: Seven Lectures (1904) and Henry Creighton’s How the Nitrogen Problem has been solved (1919). Implications of technological fundamentalism and the future of contemporary agriculture in a capitalist system are discussed.

Related file

Miller - Haber-Bosch (2016).docx

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