Updated: Nov 13, 2021
By David John Smith
As the world population began to boom during the course of the 1800s, the scientific question began to circulate – how long would the world population survive on current food supply production?
The world was coming to a crossroads, and many were concerned. The world was changing - transforming from rural agricultural societies to large dense population - the cities.
The world population increased from 1 billion in 1800 to nearly 2 billion by 1900 In 1800, there were only 23 cities with over 100.000 citizens, but by 1900 the number had risen to 135. In 1800, London was the largest city in the world with 1.1 million inhabitants, just one century later this world-leading number had risen to 6.5 million.
The Tower Bridge in London in 1892.
At the Crossroads
Throughout the history of modern history, natural fertilizers had been used to increase crop production, but this had been in a world based on the rural agricultural society. This natural fertilizer was based on manure production from farm animals, but animals had to be fed.
With a stable population this cyclical method was sustainable, but as the world population began to boom during the course of the 1800s, other sources for fertilizers needed to be found.
Enter Sir William Crookes
Into the story came the respected Sir William Crookes, by 1898 he had the President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and in his very first speech as President, he told of what we saw as a coming catastrophe for mankind. Sir Crookes stated that if measures were not immediately taken to find ways of adding nitrogen to the soil to increase productivity, the world was in grave danger.
Sir William Crookes continued to say that once the supply of fertilizer was exhausted within several decade, this scenario combined with the rapidly increasing world population could lead to mass starvation shortly afterward.
The challenge, said Sir Crookes, was to produce large supplies of the nitrogen at an affordable cost. Sir Crookes made a call to arms to scientists, calling upon them to find a way to take the element out of the air – which is 78.8% nitrogen.
Sir Crookes warned of the dangers ahead if ways to add nitrogen to the soil were not found.
So, the race began to find the process to extract and then bind nitrogen (N2) from the air. At the time, it was common scientific knowledge that nitrogen oxides were a natural occurrence as a result of lightning. How could this lightning effect be used – and reused time and time again – to produce the nitrogen necessary to create artificial fertilizer?
Two engineers from the United States took an early lead as they sought to tame the power of Niagara Falls in order to oxidize atmospheric nitrogen. Electric flames were generated with a current that flowed continuously at 10,000 Volts.
It was a complicated process, with one large electric arc divided into over 414,000 arcs per minute. It was an unstable process and this fact combined with high production costs related to electricity doomed the venture to failure as the company went bankrupt in 1904.
The Germans Next
The world still waited for a solution. Inexpensive electricity in great amounts would be necessary to take nitrogen from the air and bind it for use in manufacturing mineral fertilizer.
The German company BASF (Badische Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik SE) led by chemist Otto Schönherr and the electrical engineer Johannes Hessberger also began working on arc technology at the end of the 19th century.
Progress was slow, and sometimes not at all. Then it was in the fall of 1903 that Sam Eyde contacted BASF. It was not coincidental that that was at this same time that Eyde was offered the opportunity – and accepted – to buy the water rights to Rjukan Falls.
The Power of Water
Sam Eyde was no stranger to the power of water. Far up in the mountains of soutcentral Norway, Eyde had visited Rjukanfossen when he had been an engineering student in Berlin. With a total drop of 238 metres together with a vertical fall of 104 metres, he observed as the water hit the rocks below with such an impact that it was later estimated that the falls had the potential to produce 250,000 horsepower in energy.
Rjukanfossen translated means ‘the smoking waterfall’, plunging into the gorge, pounding the water into miniscule droplets giving it the appearance of rising smoke.
This was the energy that Eyde had been seeking. The future of the world hung in the balance.
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For those of you not familiar with Sam Eyde, this Arendal man from the south of Norway is arguably the most successful entrepreneur ever in this country.
If you would like to learn the entire story of the Rjukan-Notodden Industrial Heritage Site, you can read our breakthrough UNESCO e-book.