100 years of artificial nitrogen – but how many left?

I recently was asked in an interview to name the one thing I would change in the world if I had the power to do so. Surprising even myself, I replied quickly “the Haber-Bosch (H-B) process for industrial nitrogen fixation. Imagine – a world without synthetic N! One can imagine the blank look I got when I pulled that one out of the blue zaymer.

My response came from a professional lifetime studying the good and bad of fertilizers, especially nitrogen. And it comes from much reading of the literature on food production and the ills of our advanced society. So, bear with me as I look into a reverse crystal ball for what-if, realizing all the while that there is no way of going back, but examining whether the reverse crystal ball could help us move forward.


Carl Bosch

Much of my background material comes from Vaclav Smil’s book, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and The Transformation of World Food Production (2001), sprinkled in with Smil’s Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-First Century (2000) and L.T. Evans’s Feeding the Ten Billion: Plants and Population Growth (1998). There are many other books and papers I could cite, but most are repeating much of the same material.

So, what is the H-B process anyway, and how did it come about? A bit of history:

The world, especially Europe and China, had gained population in bursts, but around 1500 farming moved from subsistence to commercial. Farmers owned their land and developed cropping rotations centered on increasing carrying capacity for animals with fertility supplied through manures and nitrogen coming from clover. Soon, high-yielding cereals were introduced and population headed toward the first billion. Read More >