producing explosives from thin air

I have finished this book and will post two additional passages that interested me, because they taught me something I was previously unaware of. Here is the first passage. A second will follow shortly. I highly recommend reading the entire book, as I was tempted to post more excerpts from it.

During World War One, Germany was placed under blockade and suffered severe shortages of raw materials, in particular saltpetre (potassium nitrate), an essential ingredient in gunpowder and other explosives. the most important saltpetre deposits were in Chile and India; there were none at all in Germany. True, saltpetre could be replaced by ammonia, but that was expensive to produce …. Luckily for the Germans, one of their fellow citizens, a Jewish chemist named Fritz Haber, has discovered in 1908 a process for producing ammonia literally out of thin air. When war broke out, the Germans used Haber’s discovery to commence industrial production of explosives using air as a raw material. Some scholars believe that if it hadn’t been for Haber’s discovery, Germany would have been forced to surrender long before November 1918. The discovery won Haber (who during the war also pioneered the use of poison gas in battle) a Nobel Prize in 1918. In chemistry, not in peace.

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, (McClelland & Stewart, 2014), pp. 340-341.

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