21 February 2011

Haber and Bosch named top chemical engineers

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Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch have been named as the world’s most influential chemical engineers of all time by readers of tce magazine.

The German duo were responsible for devising the Haber-Bosch process, perhaps the most recognised chemical process in the world, which captures nitrogen from the air and converts it to ammonia for use in fertilisers.

Haber developed a high-temperature high-pressure process to break the triple bonds of atmospheric nitrogen while Bosch was responsible for scaling up the process, finding cheaper ways of producing hydrogen and developing both a new catalyst and reactor which could withstand both the temperature and pressure of the reaction.

The process is still used throughout the chemical process industries today, 100 years since its inception.

The pair topped a poll in which members of IChemE were invited to vote for the chemical engineers that have most changed the world with 24% of the vote.

Bosch was a chemical engineer at BASF and Andreas Kreimeyer, the company's current research executive director says that the memory of Haber and Bosch lives on: "The entrepreneurial spirit of Haber and Bosch in developing this new groundbreaking technology still serves as a role model for the culture of innovation at BASF.

"The Haber-Bosch process was certainly the key to accessing the large amount of fertilizer needed to boost crop output to fight hunger, and has proved to be an enduring invention since that time. More than 100 million metric tons of nitrogen-containing fertilizers are still produced by this process annually, helping to feed more than 40 % of the earth’s population."

The poll runner-up was Henry Bessemer, a nineteenth century English engineer whose Bessemer process saw a dramatic cut in the cost of steel, enabling the second industrial revolution – the mass production of goods, and the rise of the modern factory.

Other candidates included George Rosenkranz, Luis Miramontes and Carl Djerassi, the men behind the contraceptive pill; Carl von Linde and William Hampson who gave us the Hampson - Linde air separation cycle; Csaba Horváth who introduced high-throughput liquid chromatography; and Jasper Kane and John McKeen for scaling up the production of penicillin in the midst of World War II.

Claudia Flavell While, editor of tce magazine says: “No one can doubt the significance of the Haber-Bosch process – without fertilisers, the Earth could only sustain a population of around 4 billion humans, rather than the almost seven billion we have today. Chemical engineers are all too often the ‘forgotten’ heroes; it is very gratifying to be able to put them in the limelight for a change.”

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