Nobel Prize Not Enough for Patent Critics
Thomas Hager’s book The Alchemy of Air, describes the pursuit to fix nitrogen. A major limitation for food production is the ability to fix nitrogen. Historically, the solution was the use of manure to provide fixed nitrogen for agriculture. However, this required huge amounts of manure for very limited results. Guano and other sources of natural nitrogen were found to be much more effective. Soils treated with these sources of nitrogen often produced significantly higher returns than those treated with manure.
Sir William Crookes in an 1898 speech warned that the world could soon run out of these natural deposits fixed nitrogen. If the world did not find a substitute source of fixed nitrogen, then millions of people would starve. Today we would call this “Peak Nitrogen.” A number of researchers took up the challenge. One area of research was to use electric arcs to fix nitrogen. Another area of research was cyanamide, which combines nitrogen with calcium carbide with a catalyst.
Fritz Haber invented the process of combining nitrogen and hydrogen under pressure and heat with a catalyst to produce ammonia. The pressures necessary for this process, 100-200 atmospheres, were unheard of at the time. Haber was only able to accomplish this by carving a chamber out of quartz. The catalyst he found was osmium. Naturally, on the eve of rolling out the production process, the patent for this process was challenged. The challengers argued that Haber’s invention was nothing but a straightforward extrapolation of known applications. No matter that no one had ever worked at these pressures before, no matter that no one had ever used osmium as a catalyst – it was a straightforward application. Fritz Haber who invented the basic process and Carl Bosch who scaled up the process for commercial production both received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
This shows that critics of patents are not objective. Even being awarded for a Nobel prize for your work is not enough for many critics of patents. The Haber Bosch process was a combination of known elements. Nothing in their process was unexpected in the sense that it violated any laws of physics or chemistry. Note that the Supreme Court’s KSR opinion cast dispersions on inventions that are a “mere combination of known elements.” It also suggested that only inventions where an element performed in an unexpected manner did it deserved a patent. The Supreme Court and critics of the patent system have no idea what they are talking about. All inventions are combinations of known elements. The critics attack on patents is more about their biases than the validity of patents.
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