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The Haber-Bosch Process; Or, Why 4 Billion People are Alive Today

The Haber-Bosch Process; Or, Why 4 Billion People are Alive Today

Last week we touched on the Haber-Bosch process–it's the method by which we mass-produce ammonia, which is essential to modern fertilizers. As the headline reads, it's basically why we're able to feed everybody on the planet. It's a miraculous discovery right up there with soap, antibiotics, and Netflix, and its discovery is responsible for a nearly incalculable increase in quality of life. Today we're going to go a little more in-depth on what surrounds this process, what it means to the world, and why it's also terrifying.

A Long Walk for a Little Nitrogen

Despite nitrogen being a huge portion of the elemental makeup of the planet, very little of it is useful to living organisms because nitrogen primarily exists in a single, stable, form. Nitrogen can be utilized, however, by nitrogen-fixing microorganisms in the soil, making usable nitrogen (ammonia) available to plant life and thus beginning the nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen is essential in the construction of proteins and other bodily compounds, which, newsflash, everything needs.

We figured out that nitrogen compounds were useful for growing healthy, robust crops quite a while back. We did not figure out, however, how to add nitrogen to these crops without using animal waste or saltpeter until fairly recently. Enter Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, the former who created a method of ammonia synthesis and the latter who industrialized the process. I'm going to quote Wikipedia here rather than try to phrase this some cute way: "The process converts atmospheric nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3) by a reaction with hydrogen (H2) using a metal catalyst under high temperatures and pressures."

This method of creating fertilizer, mostly directly utilized as ammonia or urea, from last week's post, has fed more people than Jesus. It simply cannot be overstated how much this process changed the world. It is estimated that without the Haber-Bosch process, we would need four times the land that we do now for a comparable harvest–or, put another way, half of all non-polar land on the planet.

The Bad News

The hydrogen utilized in the Haber-Bosch process comes from natural gas. Without it, there's no hydrogen, and therefore no process, no fertilizer, and thus only 1/4 of the food produced around the world.  Estimates for the contribution to the world population on the part of Haber-Bosch is...half. Half of humanity is alive today because of the Haber-Bosch process. The relatively easy acquisition of fertilizer in the last century has led to a population explosion that simply would not have been possible without the HBP.

Which isn't to say that if you took the process away 4 billion people would die of starvation–other technologies, improvements in agricultural techniques and the crops themselves, account for some of the explosion. It is to say that we would enter an unprecedented period of misery, in which likely some fewer billions would starve and millions more would perish in conflict. Which itself isn't to say that that's what's going to happen. Collapse is not going to be an all or nothing thing. And yeah, what we're talking about is a key component in big C Collapse.

In the long run, as mentioned a while back, we will eventually run out of fossil fuels. We just will. Whether that means we actually run out, or the people who make money from them stop drilling for it, is hard to say. (My vote is, in effect, both. The rich will stop drilling and what's left will be very difficult to use.) But one way or another, the fuel that powers virtually all of our existence today will dry up, and we will be left without the means to fertilize our crops, which has allowed for billions more people on the planet than previously possible.

There Isn't Any Good News

Well, there's a little. As stated above, other advances in technology, technique, and the crops themselves has allowed for some of that population explosion. There's also the fact that the HBP, despite allowing for your breakfast, lunch, and most of dinner, is a major source of pollution and responsible for a whole 1% of energy consumption on the planet. Alternatives to this process would be invaluable.

Without that you're a chemist, we're not likely to discover some new process between us. What we can do is promote nitrogen fixing microbes in our fields, yards, and gardens, and utilize natural sources of nitrogen (like urea, except we're not using fossil fuels to make it) in our own food production. Despite this sounding perhaps a little gross and like hard work, it is good news, and the alternative to it is hunger, so.

Nitrogen-fixing Plants

When you're browsing a nursery website or a seed store or what have you, you might come across something that says x and y are nitrogen-fixing plants. What this means in reality is that these plants promote the bacteria that fix nitrogen in the soil. There are a lot of them, and they're the reason you'll see corn on one side of a field one year, and soybeans the next. Some plants, like corn and tomatoes, are nitrogen suckers, and they'll deplete your soil quickly, leaving next year's harvest lacking. But if you rotate your crops, use cover crops, and generally use a lot of nitrogen-fixers, your plants will be in good shape year after year.

For Gardening: Your best bet is to go with the legume family. Beans and peas will assist nitrogen-fixing bacteria via a symbiotic relationship–and that's, as far as I know, all beans and peas. Green, black, kidney, soy, fava, on and on.

For a field, yard, or for grazing animals: vetch and clover. Both of these are good fodder for, say, chickens, and they have the added benefit of being good for pollinators.

If you're thinking about planting a tree around the yard: do us all a favor and pick a nitrogen-fixer. Black locusts, redbuds, Kentucky coffee, acacia, mimosa, (and others) will work, among others. (With consideration to native species, please.)


Part of how we can come closer to a nitrogen balance is by reducing waste–which isn't just you making sure you eat your breadcrusts. If you don't simply throw out your food waste, dead flowers, and the like, you can compost them and return some of their nitrogen content to the soil. In my household, we're less about keeping a separate can full of messy remains and more about tossing coffee grounds and eggshells into a sealed yogurt container. Once it's full, I throw it into either a big tumbling composter in the backyard, or directly onto my garden beds in the summertime.

We also have chickens–which, to reiterate, are one of the great joys of our day. They naturally produce a tremendous amount of excellent composting material. I throw their waste and wood shavings/straw from the coop into the tumbler to cure for a several months at a time, and then–here in a couple weeks–I'll use all that material as the foundation for a new raised bed.

Now, braver souls than I use composting toilets, in which human waste becomes viable fertilizer. That's not something I'm quite ready to do, but it's good to know that it's an option if you're less squeamish about waste. As our budgets (both fossil fuel and otherwise) get tighter, we'll be looking for ways to replace the Haber-Bosch process, and keep ourselves fed.

We're wading into dark territory, the next few weeks. On the newsletter, I mean–in real life we're wading into dark territory for the foreseeable future. (Don't throw away your N95s, btw. The B.2 subvariant is likely to surge soon.) There are some things that we have to discuss, and they're not pretty, nor can they be spun at all. Maybe I'll add a bad joke or two in, though, so there's that.