Oslo professor behind Norway's most important invention

A fiasco became a success of global significance, thanks to scientific insight. Mineral fertiliser has been ranked Norway's most important invention of the last 100 years in a public survey carried out by the national broadcasting company NRK and the Norwegian Industrial Property Office.

Illustration: Colourbox / University of Oslo

It all started with a mistake

Kristian Birkeland joined the University of Oslo as a professor of physics in 1898 and quickly became famous for his research on the aurora borealis. He broke new ground in the scientific study of magnetism and radiation.

On 7 March 1903, he was supposed to be demonstrating an electromagnetic cannon that he had developed. The University's Old Banqueting Hall was packed with representatives from the world's leading weapons manufacturers, and even Norway's Minister of Defence was there. The test fire was a resounding failure. A massive short circuit caused a deafening explosion, producing a powerful inductive arc at the mouth of the cannon.

Birkeland said afterwards that this was the most dramatic moment of his life. He had set up a commercial firearms company "Birkeland skytevåben" with the sole purpose of raising funding for his research.

The idea was that the company would sell a cannon where a magnetic projectile was propelled forwards by magnetic fields in a series of induction coils along the cannon. Instead, the professor saw his shares in the company plummet from 300 per cent to zero in a flash, even if the projectile actually hit the target!

Happy ending

The disastrous cannon demonstration could have gone down in history as a highly embarrassing fiasco. Instead the lessons learned from this experiment gave rise to a new and far more important industrial adventure. This would probably not have happened if the erudite scientist Kristian Birkeland had not recognised the potential of what he had witnessed.

Just one week after the dramatic presentation, Birkeland happened to meet engineer and businessman Sam Eyde at a dinner party. During the course of their conversation, Sam Eyde mentioned he was concerned about the dwindling supplies of saltpetre (sodium nitrate) needed to make fertiliser. Eyde knew that people had attempted to fix nitrogen from the air using electrical discharge.

"I need the world's largest electric arc", Eyde is purported to have said.

"Coming right up", Birkeland retorted.

Trial and error led to fertiliser production

On 20 February that same year (1903), Birkeland and Eyde filed a patent application. The patent was based on Birkeland's in-depth knowledge about the effect of magnetism on electric arcs. But the university physicists associated with Birkeland and Eyde's engineers had to do a lot of trial and error work to find a way to use this method to produce the calcium nitrate needed to make mineral fertiliser.

Norsk Hydro was established, not least thanks to funding from and the steady board chairmanship of Swedish industrialist Marcus Wallenberg. Since then, Hydro has become a global supplier of artificial fertiliser. More recently, fertiliser production has been transferred to Yara, after Yara demerged from Hydro as an independent company.
Improving the lives of millions

The method conceived of by Kristian Birkeland and implemented by Sam Eyde has strengthened agriculture around the world and increased food production on a massive scale. Mineral fertiliser has helped meet the world's need for more food as a result of the rapid population growth in the last hundred years.

This industrial fairytale also paved the way for what has subsequently been dubbed the "green revolution". Researcher Norman Borlaug developed new cultivation methods that gave rise to high-yield crops, which have been adopted by a number of developing countries.

One condition for this was access to large quantities of fertiliser. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his research to improve the plight of small-hold farmers in poor countries.

Birkeland's story illustrates how top-rate research, knowledge development and innovation can improve life directly.

Series of articles

This article is one of several in a series to mark the University of Oslo's bicentennial, highlighting the role the institution has played in Norwegian society.

By Helge Kjøllesdal
Published Sep. 2, 2011 11:12 AM