World's Wheat Supply Diminishing - Not Sufficient Nitrogen

British Association Meeting at Bristol. 

9 September 1898 The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.)

London. September 8.  

The British Association is holding its annual session at Bristol this year, under the presidency of Sir William Crookes, the well known chemical scientist.

The president, in his opening address yesterday, declared that the world's supply of wheat was gradually diminishing because the earth's stores of nitrogen were not inexhaustible.

He also stated that the electrical works now established at the Falls of Niagara were capable of generating electrically12,000,000 tons of atmospheric nitrogen yearly.  

The British Association was founded at York in 1831 at the suggestion of Sir D. Brewster, for the purpose of stimulating scientific inquiry and for promoting the intercourse of scientific men.

The association meets annually for a session of one week, in some large provincial town, but never in London.

An annual volume is issued containing not only the addresses and abstracts of papers communicated to the several sections, but also reports on the state of science, prepared by committees specially appointed, and often assisted by grants of money for conducting researches.

Comments on the significance of this news

1.      News reports of this speech were printed in may papers across Australia.

2.      Nitrogen is an element existing in nature as a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, reducible to liquid under extreme pressure and cold. It is neither combustible nor a supporter of combustion, nor does it enter readily into combination with any other element. It forms about 77 per cent, of the weight of the atmosphere, and is a necessary constituent of all animal and vegetable tissues.

3.      Before the twentieth century, there was no way to convert the nitrogen the air into a form that could be used as a plant fertilizer – except by some bacteria that live on the roots of some plants (mainly legumes).

4.      Nitrogen rich fertilizer did exist in the form of animal manure. A big transport industry developed for the shipping of bird dung (guano) as a fertilizer in Europe – but it was running out.

5.      In 1905 a German chemist, Fritz Haber, developed an expensive and dangerous process of converting nitrogen from the air to ammonia.

6.      Another German, Carl Bosch, improved the process and the world’s first plant for the production of the nitrogen rich fertilizer - ammonium sulphate, was opened in 1913.

7.      Unfortunately, this process also increased the capacity of Germany to produce explosives – just before the outbreak of the Great War (WWI) and probably extended the war for years.

8.      The invention of nitrogen fertilizer also helped the human population of the world to explode from about 1 billion people to about 7 billion in just one hundred years.