In A Nutshell
Fritz Haber was one of Germany’s great scientific minds during World War I. He had already made invaluable contributions to the war effort, so when Germany was facing an overwhelming debt and had no gold to speak of, they turned to their prodigal son. Haber delivered by creating a complicated electrochemical process that he thought would extract gold from seawater. Before the process could really get underway, though, Haber discovered a massive error in his calculations that ended his plans for a very different economic path for Germany.
The Whole Bushel
At the end of World War I, Germany was left holding a staggering bill for damages and reparations that needed to be made. All told, it was determined that they owed 50,000 tons of gold to the Allied forces; needless to say, that wasn’t a number that war-torn Germany could easily afford.
So they turned to one of their most brilliant scientific minds, a man named Fritz Haber. Haber had already done a huge service to Germany, overseeing the process that allowed them to weaponize chlorine gas, as well as developing a process that allowed for the extraction of nitrogen from the air; this nitrogen was then used in the manufacture of fertilizers and of explosives. The process wasn’t just hugely successful, it also meant that the British blockade of Germany didn’t curtail the manufacture of gases and explosives as the Allies had hoped.
In fact, his contributions to science were so monumental that the role he played in supporting the German war effort was overlooked when it came to the awarding of the 1918 Nobel Prize; he won, for his work in extracting ammonia from other elements.
He’d already played a massive role in the churning of the German military, and when it came time to pay back the roughly half a trillion dollars (in today’s economy), they were hoping that he’d be able to work another miracle.
Haber turned to the sea. He knew that seawater contained a variety of different chemicals, compounds, and minerals such as chloride, potassium, and uranium, and he knew that there was gold in there, too. For Haber, it was just a matter of extracting the gold to create a whole new source of wealth for Germany—one that would continue on well past the time their debt was paid.
According to his original calculations, Haber figured that one metric ton of seawater would contain about 65 milligrams of gold. That in turn meant that every cubic mile of seawater would yield about 40 pounds of gold.
All that was needed was a way to extract the gold, and Haber’s method included a complicated system of massive centrifuges and not a little bit of scientific know-how. He presented his findings to the Germans, and they authorized a two-year research jaunt in which Haber and his crew would travel the world measuring the different amounts of gold present in the different bodies of water.
Under the cover of conducting oceanographic research, Haber and his team sailed the Atlantic Ocean taking measurements and readings. About two years into the project, he realized that he had made a mistake. A large one.
At his original estimates, the amount of gold that could be extracted from the seawater would have made the project cost-effective. It would have been no small feat to fund the development and manufacture of the equipment needed and to power the whole venture, but the amount of gold would have meant they would have come out on top. Once Haber realized that he had overestimated the amount of gold in seawater—by about a thousand times—it just wasn’t a financially viable operation.
Not too long after, Haber left Germany, not entirely of his own volition. He died in 1934, of heart failure.