Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles What would you say is the most important discovery made in the past few centuries? Is it the computer? The car? Electricity? Or maybe the discovery of the atom? I would argue that it is this chemical reaction: a nitrogen gas molecule plus three hydrogen gas molecules gets you two ammonia gas molecules. This is the Haber process of binding nitrogen molecules in the air to hydrogen molecules, or turning air into fertilizer. Without this reaction, farmers would be capable of producing enough food for only 4 billion people; our current population is just over 7 billion people. So, without the Haber process, over 3 billion people would be without food. You see, nitrogen in the form of nitrate, NO3, is an essential nutrient for plants to survive. As crops grow, they consume the nitrogen, removing it from the soil. The nitrogen can be replenished through long, natural fertilization processes like decaying animals, but humans want to grow food much faster than that. Now, here's the frustrating part: 78% of the air is composed of nitrogen, but crops can't just take nitrogen from the air because it contains very strong triple bonds, which crops cannot break. What Haber did basically was figure out a way to take this nitrogen in the air and put it into the ground. In 1908, the German chemist Fritz Haber developed a chemical method for utilizing the vast supply of nitrogen in the air. Haber found a method which took the nitrogen in the air and bonded it to hydrogen to form ammonia. Ammonia can then be injected into the soil, where it is quickly converted into nitrate. But if Haber's process was going to be used to feed the world, he would need to find a way to create a lot of this ammonia quickly and easily. In order to understand how Haber accomplished this feat, we need to know something about chemical equilibrium. Chemical equilibrium can be achieved when you have a reaction in a closed container. For example, let's say you put hydrogen and nitrogen into a closed container and allow them to react. In the beginning of the experiment, we have a lot of nitrogen and hydrogen, so the formation of ammonia proceeds at a high speed. But as the hydrogen and nitrogen react and get used up, the reaction slows down because there is less nitrogen and hydrogen in the container. Eventually, the ammonia molecules reach a point where they start to decompose back into the nitrogen and hydrogen. After a while, the two reactions, creating and breaking down ammonia, will reach the same speed. When these speeds are equal, we say the reaction has reached equilibrium. This might sound good, but it's not when what you want is to just create a ton of ammonia. Haber doesn't want the ammonia to break down at all, but if you simply leave the reaction in a closed container, that's what will happen. Here's where Henry Le Chatelier, a French chemist, can help. What he found was that if you take a system in equilibrium and you add something to it, like, say, nitrogen, the system will work to get back to equilibrium again. Le Chatelier also found that if you increase the amount of pressure on a system, the system tries to work to return to the pressure it had. It's like being in a crowded room. The more molecules there are, the more pressure there is. If we look back at our equation, we see that on the left-hand side, there are four molecules on the left and just two on the right. So, if we want the room to be less crowded, and therefore have less pressure, the system will start combining nitrogen and hydrogen to make the more compact ammonia molecules. Haber realized that in order to make large amounts of ammonia, he would have to create a machine that would continually add nitrogen and hydrogen while also increasing the pressure on the equilibrium system, which is exactly what he did. Today, ammonia is one of the most produced chemical compounds in the world. Roughly 131 million metric tons are produced a year, which is about 290 billion pounds of ammonia. That's about the mass of 30 million African elephants, weighing roughly 10,000 pounds each. 80% of this ammonia is used in fertilizer production, while the rest is used in industrial and household cleaners and to produce other nitrogen compounds, such as nitric acid. Recent studies have found that half of the nitrogen from these fertilizers is not assimilated by plants. Consequently, the nitrogen is found as a volatile chemical compound in the Earth's water supplies and atmosphere, severely damaging our environment. Of course, Haber did not foresee this problem when he introduced his invention. Following his pioneering vision, scientists today are looking for a new Haber process of the 21st century, which will reach the same level of aid without the dangerous consequences.