Sunday, February 10, 2008

Who Will Be The Next Fritz Haber?

If I mention the name 'Thomas Malthus' you will probably have heard of him. He was the early 19th century economist who famously forecast that population would rise faster than our capacity to grow food and so our destiny was one of mass starvation.

What is less well known is that his forecast nearly came to pass at the beginning of the 20th century. Throughout the 19th century agriculture in Europe became increasingly dependent on imported, artificial sources of nitrogen fertilizer (either in mined, mineral form or as guano) to compensate for the depletion of organic nitrogen in Europe's soil as demand for food increased - thanks to industrialisation and population growth.

However, by 1900 the main sources of artificial nitrogen were rapidly approaching depletion - and many began to worry that Malthus's forecast might come to pass. The challenge was to fix nitrogen chemically from the unlimited reserves in the air, but no one was quite sure how to do this (in a way that was economically sustainable). One man figured it out precisely one hundred years ago in 1908, and his name was Fritz Haber (pictured). Haber's achievement, and his subsequent work with Carl Bosch to refine the Haber-Bosch Process, is why Malthus's forecast was postponed. For a fascinating introduction to the subject of nitrogen, food and the role of Fritz Haber see this guide from the European Fertilizer Manufacturers Association.

Today, 99% of all the artificial fertilizer in use in growing food around the world is produced using the Haber-Bosch Process. Haber's achievement should therefore not be underestimated: to put it starkly, some 5-6 billion of us would not be alive today were it not for Fritz Haber's invention. That's quite a legacy for any man (he also pioneered chemical warfare, but we'll pass over that for now).

That was then, this is now. The H-B Process is energy intensive - and 97% of nitrogen fertilizer is derived from ammonia, the production of which is highly dependent on natural gas. But while the future demand for food is set to rise inexorably as the global population increases, the future supply of energy is anything but guaranteed. For the first time it seems, energy and food prices are now moving in lock step, as reported in the Sunday Telegraph today:
The current "supercycle" is a break with history because energy and food have "converged" in price and can increasingly be switched from one use to another.

Corn can be used for ethanol in cars and power plants, for plastics, as well as in baking tortillas. Natural gas can be made into fertiliser for food output. "Peak Oil" is morphing into "Peak Food".

I have written before about the The Great Grain Robbery that is now threatening consumers with double digit food price inflation. Last week's CSO report on the Consumer Price Index for January shows flour prices in Ireland rising at 44.4% - that's TEN TIMES the overall inflation rate. Nor is this a local phenomenon: global food prices are on an unprecedented upward trend, driven in part by the rapid rise in affluence in India and China and subsequent shifts in food consumption patterns.

In the coming years we will face a dual challenge in the form of peaking supplies of fossil fuels, AND surging demand for artificial fertilizer to both feed the world as well as grow bio-fuel alternatives. So will Malthus be proved right after all? It certainly seemed that way back in 1908. Today we need another Fritz Haber to square the circle of diminishing energy supplies and rising food demand; to find an answer to the questions now facing our civilisation.

Whoever she or he is, we will all be indebted to their genius - as will our children and grandchildren. Assuming, of course, there is an answer to be found.

1 comment:

  1. Well, Malthus actually gave an alternative to starvation, which is war. A very good way to regulate the populations facing famine. Despite the patent of the process (originaly described by Ostwald) in 1912, Malthus's forecast wasn't fully postponed.

    Regarding the actual context, solutions will come from biotechnologies, rather than chemistry. However reducing world's population is still the easiest way to circumvent the problems of energy and food supplies.

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