In order to pay Germany‘s staggering World War I reparations, one of the country’s greatest scientific minds created a plan to concentrate and remove gold from seawater. Fritz Haber, a Nobel Prize winner, went from creating chemical weapons to panning for gold in the ocean. But could this have worked?
The Shadow of World War I
In wartime, what is the duty of an eminent scientist? Fritz Haber, an expert on electrochemistry and gaseous chemical interactions, felt an intense desire to serve the German cause during World War I. In doing so, Haber left behind a legacy that would overshadow his immense civilian contributions; contributions to science from which humanity continues to reap the rewards.
During World War I, Haber aided in the weaponization of chlorine gas and in the creation of several other weapons of mass destruction.
Haber’s wartime contribution extended outside of the laboratory doors — the scientist often journeyed to the battlefield in order to oversee the dispersal of the chemical agents. Chemical weapons became a key component of the German arsenal in the early 20th Century, weapons that could destroy hundreds of entrenched and unprotected enemy soldiers within minutes.
Haber’s first wife, Clara Immerwahr, also held a Ph.D. in Chemistry and aided the German war machine. On the eve of Germany’s first field use of chemical weapons, however, Clara committed suicide out of guilt stemming from Haber’s chemical weapons work and their marital difficulties.
Haber’s extensive participation in World War I did not harm his Nobel Prize chances, with a fifty-year-old Haber winning the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work leading to the synthesis of ammonia via the Haber-Bosch process. Humanity continues to reap the benefits of his ammonia research, as industrial use of the Haber-Bosch process provides for the majority of the world’s fertilizer.
Haber did not receive the 1918 Nobel Prize until 1919, shortly after Germany’s defeat in World War I. The acclaimed scientist never faced trial for war crimes,thanks to Britain and France also using chemical weapons widely during the war.
After World War I, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles required that Germany pay between 50 and 132 billion German gold marks to France, Britain, and Russia. This was a huge blow to a war-torn economy — the upper end of that figure comes close to half a trillion dollars, when adjusted for inflation.
Playing to his nationalistic side, Haber sought a process by which to extract tiny amounts of gold from seawater. Seawater contains a wellspring of elements. Sodium, chloride, magnesium, potassium are present in large amounts, while an element as obscure as uranium is present in trace amounts. Haber believed the gold within the world’s oceans could be withdrawn and accumulated, to create a “free” source of money for Germany.
This bizarre scheme appeared financially viable at first. Haber initially estimated that sixty-five miligrams of gold could extracted from a metric ton of seawater.
To extract gold, Haber planned to separate the acquired seawater using massive centrifuges and his expertise in electrochemistry. Concentrating the gold would consume a phenomenal amount of energy, but at the estimated acquisition rate, an energy cost that would leave Germany with a large profit margin.
On Haber’s recommendation, Germany initiated a two-year journey to survey the amount of gold in bodies of water across the world in 1925. In time, Haber found an error in his initial calculations, with the actual amount of gold within seawater overestimated by a factor of one-thousand.
And that, in turn, meant the effort would not be worthwhile. The value of the gold garnered by the process would would not cover the cost of the energy necessary for extraction. Dr. Haber took the failure of the gold-from-the-sea effort to heart, believing that he should have caught the error in his initial projections.
In 1933, Haber left Germany under duress, due to his Jewish heritage although he had converted to Lutheranism early in life. He died in 1934 from cardiovascular failure, leaving behind a legacy that merges the deaths of thousands in World War I with his Nobel Prize-winning peacetime work, which laid the foundation for modern agriculture.