HC Deb 02 May 1918 vol 105 cc1688-92
30. Sir W. BEALE

asked the Minister of Munitions whether the Haber process for obtaining nitrogen from the air was well known in this country before or soon after the outbreak of the War; whether it was protected by a British patent; whether the modifications referred to by him are also so protected; whether there are about thirty, or what other number, of such patents; whether any of them have been obtained by persons who are, or were, members of the staff of the Comptroller of Munitions Inventions; whether any of such persons are Germans; and to what extent have the process and modifications so protected been used by British manufacturers under the control of the Ministry of Munitions for actual production as distinguished from laboratory investigation?


The Haber process for fixing nitrogen in the form of ammonia was well known by repute all over the world before the outbreak of war

(b) It was protected by British patents, which, as in the case of other patents communicated by German firms, are vague as to the fundamental factors necessary for the successful commercial operation of the process.

The exact knowledge existing in this country was entirely insufficient to justify commencing the erection of a manufacturing plant without extensive research.

  1. (c)The modifications referred to are protected by Departmental patents.
  2. (d)There are about twelve such Departmental patents.
  3. (e) All of the Departmental patents are in the names of members of the Research staff of the Controller of Munitions Inventions, and are assigned to the Secretary of State for War.
  4. (f) The members of the Research staff are all British subjects.
  5. (g) The process and modifications so protected have not yet been used by British manufacturers for actual production as distinguished from laboratory investigations, since the research work, which has been conducted unremittently since July, 1916, has only within the last month or two reached a stage at which it was considered possible to proceed from the laboratory scale to the manufacturing scale.

31. Sir W. BEALE

asked whether the production of nitrogen and nitrogen products by the Haber process, or modifications thereof, is applicable for producing agricultural fertilisers; whether any and what steps have been taken to make known any beneficial modification of the process which has been made by members of the staff of the Comptroller of Muni- tions Inventions, or has come to the knowledge of his Department, to manufacturers of fertilisers and nitrogen compounds and to encourage the use thereof during the War or thereafter free from obstructive patent rights; and if he will cause due publicity to be given to all such processes and improvements which may come to the knowledge of his Department and be useful to the agricultural industry?


The Haber process for the production of synthetic ammonia is applicable for producing an agricultural fertiliser, namely, ammonium sulphate.

(b) In view of the importance attached to the modifications made in the process and to the probable utility to the enemy of information upon these modifications, the results of the research work of the staff of the Controller of Munitions Inventions have not been made public, since such information is only of value to those desiring to erect a large Haber plant. This information could be communicated confidentially if proposals for the erection of a plant were put forward, and the financial arrangements approved by the Treasury.

Use is being made of the knowledge for war purposes as is indicated by the fact that the Explosives Department is now engaged in translating the research work into large-scale operations.

(c) Conferences are being held between the Ministry, the War Office, the Admiralty, the Board of Trade, and other Departments with a view to determining how far and in what manner the results of the general research work of the Munitions Inventions Department can be placed at the disposal of the manufacturers of this country for the benefit of the nation as a whole. In the meanwhile all information possible will be given.

32. Sir W. BEALE

asked whether, seeing that the Badische Anilin and Soda Fabrik is said to have quadrupled their plant for the production of nitrogen and nitrogen compounds by the Haber process and modifications thereof since the outbreak of the War, and that these processes have been long known in this country, the fact that he was unable to announce the existence in the country of definite works and plant engaged in such production on any large scale is due to the reluctance of controlled or other manufacturers to establish such works and plant; and what encouragement has been offered to manufacturers to establish such works and plant for providing materials used in explosive munitions, and for producing fertilisers for agriculture?


The fundamental factors of the Haber process and the details essential for its successful commercial operation have never been known outside Germany, and the erection of definite works in this country was, therefore, impossible until these factors and improvements had been thoroughly established as the result of two years of unremitting research under the direction of the Munitions Inventions Department.

(b) With regard to other processes for the fixing of nitrogen, of which details are known, various proposals have been submitted by manufacturers and have been considered in detail by the Nitrogen Products Committee of the Munitions Inventions Department.

These schemes were either withdrawn by those who put them forward tentatively or were found to be unsound from the point of view of having to face foreign competition after the War. In the case of the cyanamide scheme, recommended by the Committee itself, the plant required was of a nature that it could not be supplied within reasonable time without crippling important war services.

(c) The whole complex problem of nitrogen fixation in its relation to the needs of this country and to parts of the Empire has been investigated in great detail during the last two years by the above-mentioned Committee, and the Final Report of the Committee is now in course of preparation.

Major HUNT

Can the hon. Gentleman say whether the Government is going to give British manufacturers any help against the foreign competition of which he spoke?


I hope the hon. Member will give me notice of the question.

68. Sir W. BEALE

asked the President of the Board of Agriculture whether at the time when the supply of imported nitrates for agricultural fertilisers became seriously restricted by reason of the War, the Board was aware of the utility of the Haber process for obtaining nitrogen from the air for the production of such fertilisers; whether any, and, if so, what, steps have been taken by the Board to utilise the same; whether the Board has been kept informed of the modifications of that process made or recommended by Mr. Quinan or other experts advising the Ministry of Munitions; and whether the Board of Agriculture has taken or will take measures to enable and encourage manufacturers of fertilisers to use these processes during and after the War free from obstructive patent rights?

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of AGRICULTURE (Mr. Prothero)

The Board were, at the time named by my hon. Friend, aware of the value of the Haber process for the production of ammonia from the nitrogen of the air, and they are represented on the Committee of the Ministry of Munitions which deals with the subject. In reply to the remainder of the question, I can only say at present that all matters bearing on the future development of the process are receiving most careful consideration by the Committee and the Departments concerned, and that the Board will certainly do their best to encourage the full utilisation of the process for the benefit of agriculture.