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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials: The Haber Process

Updated: Oct 15, 2019

The Haber Process is the primary method for industrial production of ammonia, which is used extensively in making fertilizer. It was developed by the German chemist Fritz Haber, and was considered essential to the German war effort in World War I due to the need for nitrates for munitions production. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Carl Bosch, for their work on the engineering and chemistry techniques needed to run this process on an industrial scale of production.

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on the Haber Process.


HABER or HABER-BOSCH?

Haber was the man who came up with the process of interacting hydrogen and nitrogen gas at high pressure with a catalyst--originally osmium--to produce ammonia. Haber’s process, however, produced a very small yield--only a few ounces per hour. Enter BASF, a chemical company that bought the process. Carl Bosch was assigned to the project, and with his help, the process was scaled up to industrial rates of production.


NITROGEN AND HYDROGEN

Part of the effectiveness of the Haber-Bosch process is that it utilizes nitrogen and hydrogen, both easily available gasses. However, there are environmental consequences to the massive amount of ammonia produced annually with this process, including ecosystem disruption due to runoff from plants and problems with nitrogen saturation in lakes and coastal waters.


NITROGEN FIXATION

The process of transforming nitrogen into a form of ammonia that can be used by living organisms is one that takes place in the biological world regularly. Known as nitrogen fixation, it results in the creation of inorganic nitrogen compounds that are needed in living things to synthesize amino acids and proteins, among other necessities. The scale of the Haber Process, however, resulted in a massive upturn in food production, but also the problems of population explosion that followed.


OSMIUM CATALYST:

As we said, osmium was the original catalyst used for the process, but today most plants use powdered magnetite, a variety of iron ore, to facilitate the reaction. Adding the catalyst makes the process fast enough to be viable for commercial use. The process is also exothermic, creating a great deal of heat energy.


OSTWALD PROCESS:

Don’t confuse the Haber Process with the Ostwald Process, which is just as significant. The Ostwald Process takes the ammonia produced by the Haber Process and converts it to nitric acid, which is then used most frequently to make fertilizer. The Ostwald Process frequently uses a platinum-rhodium blend as a catalyst, and it too is a strong exothermic reaction. Wilhelm Ostwald patented this process in 1909, making it actually a predecessor of the Haber Process.


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Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:


* Wired Magazine discusses the dangers of the Haber Process and why it needs to be replaced in this article by Sarah Zhang.

* Fritz Haber wasn’t just the inventor of the Haber Process. He also was a pioneer in chemical warfare. Read more about Haber’s complicated history in Smithsonian magazine’s profile of the man.


* Although the ability to produce large amounts of nitrate compounds can have positive effects, it has enormous destructive potential as well. Take a look at the Texas City Disaster, where a French freighter, the SS Grandcamp, exploded following a fire on board the vessel, killing hundreds (including onlookers) and blowing out windows 10 miles away.


* Daniel Dulek argues that the Haber Process is the most important modern discovery in this easily understandable TED-Ed talk.


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