CH2ILE – The hidden hydrogen champion

Mining truck
Mining truck, © Anglo American

In 1883, the War of the Pacific, also known as the Saltpeter War, ended with the victory of Chile over Peru and Bolivia and Chile’s annexation of the Tarapacá and Antofagasta regions. But why go to war over the world’s driest desert? The area was rich in gold, albeit not the traditional kind.

The resource the three countries were after was white gold, or Chilean saltpeter. With the support of the British Empire, Chile became the world’s biggest exporter of the compound, commonly referred to as sodium nitrate, a natural fertilizer and if mixed with a reducing agent, an explosive. The country held a virtual monopoly on the substance for almost four decades, which led to the creation of new businesses and communities and attracted investment from around the globe.

And wherever there is money to be made, a German will get involved at one point or another. This time, it was Henry B. Sloman, a German businessman born in 1848, who went off to Chile to set up a saltpeter business in Tocopilla. In 1889, he returned to Hamburg as a wealthy man and was considered to be one of its richest citizens in 1912. In 1924, seven years prior to his death, he commissioned the construction of a 10-story office building. Called Chilehaus, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The saltpeter exports gave the Chilean economy an unprecedented boost. But nothing lasts forever. In 1904, Fritz Haber, who worked at Technische Hochschule Karlsruhe, known as KIT these days, was able to synthesize ammonia directly from hydrogen and nitrogen. Between 1910 and 1913, Carl Bosch then managed to scale up the process at BASF in Ludwigshafen. These discoveries would later earn both men the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry. For the first time in history, it became possible to bind nitrogen to a stable ammonia molecule: Haber and Bosch had figured out a way to synthesize a cheaper chemical replacement for Chile’s white gold.

In 1914, early into the First World War, the new production technique proved crucial to Germany’s war efforts. The same British Empire that had supported Chile in the War of the Pacific now began to block Germany’s import routes for saltpeter, putting the country’s agriculture and explosive powder sectors at risk. The German Empire considered the lack of saltpeter a crisis that needed solving, and with scarcity came innovation. A deal reached between the German government and the chemicals industry heavily subsidized new ammonia production facilities. As a result, Germany and its allies were able to produce explosives and fertilizers without having to rely on imports of saltpeter.

read more in H2-international April 2020

Authors:
Hans-Werner Kulenkampff

President of H2 Chile
Dr. Erwin Plett
President of the Energy Commission, Chilean Engineering Society; Low Carbon Chile SpA

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