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The Norwegians began making fertilizer from hydroelectricity 100 years ago.

At the turn of this century Professor Kristian Birkeland[1] of the University of Kristiania (soon to be renamed Oslo) was experimenting with a device called the Terella. This was a laboratory model of the earth, complete with magnetic field, placed in an evacuated vessel into which ions could be injected at high voltage. By observing the discharge glow, Birkeland was able to understand the three-dimensional structure of the Aurora Borealis. However, the equipment was expensive and money, then as now, was hard to come by. Kelvin suggested to Birkeland that research into armaments might prove lucrative and allow him to continue with the Terella. This was not the first time this idea had occurred to a physicist, Birkeland with his expertise in electromagnetism, set about producing an elektriske kanon, a rail-gun.

On Feb. 6th, 1902 Birkeland's kanon short-circuited and exploded during a test, but the disappointment he felt was muted by the observation of a disc-shaped arc, spread by the magnetic field, and the smell of nitrogen oxides. The reason this was intriguing was that the world was then gripped by a fear greater even than that of the looming conflict in Central Europe - that of world famine. Chilean nitrate deposits, on which the world depended as a fertilizer, were on the brink of running out, and chemists were scurrying to find an economical way of fixing atmospheric nitrogen. Clearly the acrid brown stench of nitrogen oxides was the smell of nitrogen being fixed, as it was a short hop skip and a jump to nitric acid and any nitrate you please.

Birkeland was not the first to fix nitrogen by electric arc - Crookes in Manchester already had a pilot plant producing calcium nitrate by this means - but the disc-shaped arc promised a high yield[2]. However, a week after the explosion he met a man who was already working on the means which would make economical production possible. That man was Sam Eyde, a civil engineer who was fascinated by the enormous potential of Norway's mountains and rainfall for the production of hydro-electricity. After that things moved with breath-taking speed. A week after meeting, Eyde and Birkeland submitted a patent for artificial fertilizer. They obtained money from the Swedish financiers, the Wallenbergs, and a mere three years later a hydroelectric plant had been built out of the wilderness at Notodden and a Birkeland-Eyde arc furnace was producing the first Norgesalpeter - Norwegian Saltpeter, i.e. calcium nitrate.

In the same year as the first Norgesalpeter was produced, Fritz Haber discovered a much better way of producing nitrates via ammonia made by what is now known as the Haber process. Indeed, the Norwegians soon abandoned the arc furnaces and adopted Haber's idea. However, Birkeland's discovery had started something irreversible: the large scale development of hydro-electric power in Norway by the company he and Eyde had started: Norsk Hydro.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Thu Dec 20th, 2007 at 07:31:09 PM EST
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