AMU Army Editor's Pick Marines Military Original

Ammonium Nitrate from Fertilizer Research to Munitions and Poison Gas

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final article in a three-part series on the history of enhancing global food security.

The industrialization of modern agriculture initially preceded and then paralleled the industrialization of modern munitions. Explosives and poison gases (notably chlorine, mustard, and phosgene/diphosgene) were initially developed from ammonia byproducts by the fervent German scientist and patriot Fritz Haber.

Believing that gas warfare would potentially shorten World War I, Haber’s chemical weapons ended up prolonging the conflict and contributing to the defeat of Imperial Germany. At the end of WWI, an estimated 30% of shells contained chemical agents. Most military historians believe that without Haber’s gases Germany probably could not have continued fighting until 1918.

Get started on your Homeland Security Degree at American Military University.

After heavy German casualties during the First Battle of Ypres — called the “Massacre of the Innocents” — in northern France and southern Belgium in October and November 1914, Haber personally supervised the use of chlorine gas that he engineered against Allied troops in April 1915. The maze of trench warfare had brought conventional warfare to a standstill. The Second Battle of Ypres initiated the large-scale use of chemical weapons. That led to Haber’s promotion to captain and head of the Chemistry Section of the Ministry of War.

Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) personally promoted Haber, an extremely rare advancement for a scientist who was too old for German military service. British, French, and American chemists immediately retaliated by developing poison gas agents and explosives. After exposure to mustard gas during a British-led Allied attack in the Fifth (and final) Battle of Ypres in October 1918, a Bavarian Army corporal named Adolf Hitler was diagnosed with the psychiatric disorder “hysterical amblyopia” after exposure to a gas attack from his own side.

 In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler describes it as a “yellow gas,” which likely contributed to his deteriorating mental health. It’s believed that Hitler’s paranoia of being exposed to Haber’s gases strongly motivating his transition from the military into politics. Also, Hitler grew his infamous small mustache after his gas mask leaked while he was under a gas attack. Hitler believed if he grew a mustache he would have a tighter seal around the top of his mouth and nose.

Nazi Germany Used Haber’s Gases against His own German Jewish Relatives during the Holocaust

Later versions of Haber’s gases (most notably hydrogen cyanide-based Zyklon-B) were used by Nazi Germany against Haber’s own German Jewish relatives during the Holocaust. In his “pesticide” research, Haber noted that exposure to lower concentrations of a given poison gas for a longer time caused death just as exposure to a higher gas concentrations for a shorter time did; the so-called “Haber’s rule” influenced killing efficiency calculations in Nazi concentration camps and during gas warfare.

Regarded as the first notable struggle between free laboratory research and governmental/military politics  — and called “the tragedy of the German Jew” by his friend and colleague Albert Einstein — Haber initiated the exploitation of modern science from productive to destructive means leading to the rapidly-developing field of “black biology.”

Poison gases developed by Haber killed millions during WWI, when many battles were determined by chemistry. In WWII, however, in the final battle against Japan — the atomic bomb — was determined by physics.

“A scientist belongs to all mankind in times of peace, but his fatherland only in times of war” Fritz Haber said to justify his efforts. Today he is remembered as the “father of chemical warfare” instead of a potential legacy as one of the “founding fathers of modern agriculture.”

Virtually unrestrained technological advancements, as notably evidenced by the Haber-Bosch fertilizer synthesis scenario, have the ironic potential to escalate human genocide just as the same technological advancements had the initial potential to alleviate global hunger and death by starvation.

Severe environmental and health-threatening increases in greenhouse gas emissions and surface water eutrophication — in addition to extreme soil imbalances, root burn of crops, suffocation of aquatic life, and propagation of pests and disease — will undoubtedly continue until the current “ammonia dilemma” is solved.

The explosive power of ammonium nitrate fertilizers was evident in the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building when Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb out front. The explosion of two then-unregulated legal bulk purchases of about 2,300 kilograms of fertilizer by McVeigh and his accomplices killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured over 500.

Terrorist bombingsusing ammonium nitrate continue: including the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

Inappropriate Storage of Ammonium Nitrate Fertilizer Instantly Killed over 150 People in Beirut

Earlier this month, a massive explosion in a waterfront warehouse in Beirut, Lebanon, caused by the inappropriate storage of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, instantly killed over 150 people and injured and displaced more than 300,000 others. The 2,500,000 kilograms of ammonium nitrate produced an enormous blast nearly 1100 times more powerful than the 2,300 kilograms in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Twelve years after the Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest domestic terrorism act in U.S. history, the 2007 Secure Handling of Ammonium Nitrate Act finally required licensing of ammonium nitrate facilities and registration for buyers. Generally supported by the fertilizer industry, the legislation however fell well short of stricter regulations advocated by many in federal law enforcement and the counter-terrorism community.

In 2011, anyone who buys, sells, or transfers 25 pounds of ammonium nitrate — enough to level a traditional house — must register with the Department of Homeland Security. Ammonium nitrate facilities are required to keep records of all ammonia sales and transfers. The 2007 legislation provided a legal framework for establishing what forms of ammonium nitrate could later be regulated, leaving the specifics of future determinations to bureaucrats. Currently, the U.S. still has weaker controls over ammonium nitrate than many other nations, including Germany, Britain, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

Suggested Reading:

  • Charles, Daniel. (2005). Mastermind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
  • Cornwell, John. (2003). Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil’s Pact. New York, NY: Penguin.
  • Hager, Thomas. (2008). The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery that Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D., received his BS from Colorado State University/Fort Collins, MA from the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, and Ph.D. from the University of Utah/Salt Lake City and has been a faculty member in American Public University’s School of Health Sciences, Department of Sports and Health Sciences, since 2015. As a regular columnist in encyclopedias and popular magazines, Dr. Graetzer greatly enjoys helping bridge communication gaps between recent breakthroughs in biomedical knowledge, practical application of developing scientific theories, and societal well-being. Dr. Graetzer has obtained APU funding to research the productive versus destructive uses of modern science as related to the development, production, and deployment of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Dr. Graetzer looks forward to collaborating with APU military students to further investigate the numerous physical and mental stressors experienced by tactical athletes within variety of combat environments.

Comments are closed.