Thomas Hager

The Alchemy of Air

The Alchemy of Air

Thomas Hager sees through the mist and shares the most fundamental and impactful science that shapes and supports our lives. Learn of these rarely told discoveries and developments that have literally caused the world we enjoy today.

Thomas Hager Excerpt

 

Thomas Hager:
Funny thing Tom, but the case is that there are many, many important discoveries in science that never get big play. People know about a few discoveries. You know Newton’s apple, falling in Galileo, and some players like that. There are probably dozens and dozens of vital discoveries that people know very little about. This was one of those discoveries. It’s kind of a, I call it heavy metal science discovery in that the discovery has led to the construction of these enormous factories. Plants the size of small cities that are humming everywhere around the world. They burn one percent of all the energy on earth. They breathe in oceans of air and rivers of water at one end and they dump out thousands of tons of fertilizer at the other end. And that fertilizer, synthetic fertilizer made out of air, is what’s keeping alive about forty percent of the people alive in the world.
Tom Park:
Made out of air.
Thomas Hager:
Yes.
Tom Park:
What does that mean?

Thomas Hager:
Well in the old days when they first made this discovery, they said it was making bread out of air. Which I think is a clever way of saying the truth, which is that the air is full of nitrogen. Nitrogen is an element. It’s one of the elements along with oxygen, in fact eighty percent of the air that you breathe in and out is nitrogen.
Tom Park:
Eighty percent.
Thomas Hager:
Eighty percent of the air around you is nitrogen but it doesn’t do anything for you. It is inert. It’s dead essentially. They used to call it dead air, as a matter of fact.
Tom Park:
We won’t have any today.
Thomas Hager:
No no, none today. But that nitrogen, you breathe it in and breathe it out all the time, it doesn’t do anything to you at all. However it is essential for life. It’s the fourth most common element in your body. It’s in all of your DNA. It’s in all of your proteins. You can’t make human beings or any other animal or any plant without nitrogen. So there’s an ocean of nitrogen around us and yet we can’t use any of it, but we require it for life. So how do we get it?
I tell this story in the book about the ways you get nitrogen into living things. It’s a very difficult process, and it’s very slow process. There’s only so much nitrogen that we have available. So if you want to be a farmer and you want to have your field’s produce a lot, you’ve got to put on fertilizer. The primary thing in fertilizer every farmer knows is nitrogen. That’s the most important element in that fertilizer. Sometimes it’s called ammonium something or other because ammonium has nitrogen in it and has other names. But it’s nitrogen that makes plants grow, and it’s plants that feed animals and man. All life is dependent on nitrogen. Well, what these guys figured out in the early part of the twentieth century was that the world population was rising so fast, this was 1900 around 1900, world population was going up so fast that it was going to out strip food supplies. And unless something was done, the world was going to run out of food and people would start starving by the millions around 1930.
Tom Park:
1930
Thomas Hager:
That was the prediction and it would have come true. It would have come true because in fact, if you do the best farming you can do, the most wonderful productive organic farming, if you farm like the best of farmers on earth, who are in southeast China, if you farm at that level you can feed about four plus billion people.

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