Nitrogen. It’s 78% of our atmosphere, existing as a diatomic molecule: one nitrogen atom has formed a triple bond with another nitrogen atom. More importantly, this version of nitrogen is useless, chemically speaking; it’s inert for all practical purposes. It has to be changed, transformed into something useful like ammonia (NH3). This is what was so revolutionary, so globally transformative, about Fritz Haber’s “discovery.” He figured out how to use lots of energy and pressure to fix nitrogen: turn molecular nitrogen into ammonia. The industrialization of this process is where Carl Bosch enters. He figured out how to industrialize the process; even invented and made the equipment capable of doing this. (As discussed in fabulous detail by Thomas Hager in Alchemy of Air.)
The reason I get to write about Chemistry & one of my favorite books: Charles Margarit. This young man (attending my alma mater by the by) just received a Goldwater scholarship for his research that could potentially reduce the energy requirements of the Haber-Bosch process. Just very cool.