Fritz Haber

Berlin, 1918 - 1927

Under the influence of the Allied reparation requirements, Fritz Haber, after the First World War, thought about gaining the gold contained in the sea water, thereby enabling the German Reich to settle the demands. He assumed an approximate gold content of 6 mg per tonne of seawater and commissioned two doctoral students to test the feasibility of the experiment in the laboratory experiment. After several methods had been developed in artificially produced seawater and 3% sodium chloride solution, which yielded reliable results in the laboratory, the development of a technical extraction process began under Haber's direction.

The funds of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry, whose director Haber was, were limited in the post-war (and inflation) period. However, he was expecting considerable costs for the development of the procedure and, in particular, the research journeys, which should serve the exact gold content analysis in the seas and the practical testing of the procedure, and therefore sought donors for the project. He found them in the Degussa and the Metallgesellschaft, with whom a contract on the financing of the research was concluded in December 1922. In close contact with the Hapag shipping company, a laboratory was installed on board the steamer Hansa.

Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry

In July 1923, Haber and three of his employees drove on the Hansa from Hamburg to New York. During this transatlantic crossing, they sampled a large number of water samples, some of which were immediately tested on the ship's gold for their gold content, and tested an extraction system installed on board. The gold grades found were very variable, on average they were slightly below expectations, but in some cases they were higher. The extraction system worked only imperfectly and under great apparatus difficulties.

Shortly thereafter, a second Atlantic cruise took place on the Hansa, where Haber himself did not participate. The determined gold contents were lower than on the first ride. In the autumn of 1923 the South Atlantic was explored. On board the Wurttemberg, where a laboratory had been improved according to the experience so far, Haber, accompanied by three employees, went to Buenos Aires. The water samples examined during this voyage showed even lower gold contents; no significant progress was made with regard to technical extraction.

The results of this first year of practical experimentation were discouraging: the found gold contents were considerably lower than would have been necessary for economic exploitation, and extraction on a technical scale also did not produce the hoped-for results (but this was secondary with regard to the low gold contents found) ). However, the partly very high values ​​that had been found during the first ride with the Hansa justified further hope.

In the KWI for physical chemistry, activities were now implemented in two ways. A further processing and refinement of the analytical methods took place, during the course of which the detection limit for gold was reduced to about 109 g. The most important improvements were the introduction of centrifugation instead of the time-consuming filtration and the refinement of the cupulation method, which served the direct determination of the gold. It was also clear that the first determinations had not been sufficiently accurate for the separation of the silver of the gold, which was also contained in sea water. Many early results were therefore too high, because the "gold" beads measured after the cupelation under the microscope had contained a not inconsiderable amount of silver. For the precise determination it was also a great disadvantage, That one did not know how gold was present in the sea water. The initial idea that gold is present in the form of dissolved salts of hydrochloric acid in seawater proved to be wrong. The seawater always contained so much reducing substances that a considerable portion of metallic gold had to be formed in a colloidal distribution. The regulations were made more difficult by the secondary components contained in seawater. Plankton, in particular, is mentioned here, which occurred in varying quantities and distribution and, above all, made indirect methods of determination impossible. It was found that the transfer of the methods found in the laboratory under precisely defined conditions could not be carried out easily in the unpredictable practice. 

Nevertheless, some high gold grades, which were found at the beginning, and which were still considered to be correct even in the light of the improved methods, left a spark of hope. Haber believed in the existence of regionally limited marine areas which could have an above-average gold content, for example, due to underwater gold-containing sources. This hope determined the second working direction in the KWI for physical chemistry. A total of more than 5,000 seawater samples, which had either been drawn up on their own trial journeys or sent by Haber's extensive international connections from many parts of the world by researchers and shipping companies, were examined.

The result of these investigations was sobering. The average gold grades were always smaller and nowhere was a promising area with an economically worthwhile gold content. Even the highest individual values ​​found were far below the economically acceptable level of 3 to 4 mg / t. In 1927, Haber had an employee participate in the last of fourteen Atlantic transitions of the research vessel Meteor. The average of the gold content determined by it was only 0.0044 mg / t, ie one thousandth of what would have been necessary for an economic operation.


German research vessel Meteor

Haber, who had devoted most of his work to the project described above, especially in the years 1922 and 1923, had to accept a failure. From a scientific point of view, a good deal has been achieved, such as the optimization of methods of detection and better knowledge of the condition of gold in seawater, but it has been unsuccessful. In retrospect, he wrote in 1927 with reference to the values ​​which had initially been found,

"Such rare coincidences have initially led us astray. The older analyzes from the literature would not have been sufficient for us to record the subject in the manner described, and to work on it for many years if they had not found an apparent confirmation by some of the samples themselves examined. At that time, we did not control the analytical methods in the same way as now, after several years of further study of the subject matter and the method of sampling, did not give the same assurance. After all, the mode of operation has been varied in many ways, and the probability of not showing that the values ​​were real were not to be dismissed. It is not uncommon, however, that chance first leads the observer to the most unlikely cases, after which he will have to search a long time to meet them again. What we did not recognize then, Was the separation of these deposits. Like our predecessors, we have shifted the small amounts observed to the special features of the scoop and random errors. For we too, at that time, thought that gold was lost much more easily than would be dragged in. "

Haber, who had succeeded in making the nitrogen usable from the air, had not been granted the same success with gold from the sea.


Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber (December 9 1868 – January 29 1934) was a German chemist who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber–Bosch process, a method used in industry to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas. He is also considered the "father of chemical warfare" for his years of pioneering work developing and weaponizing chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I, especially his actions during the Second Battle of Ypres.



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