Deadly, dirty, indispensable: the nitrogen industry has changed the world (The Economist – December 20, 2022)

It lays waste to ecosystems, allows wars to kill millions and has kept billions from starvation

It used to be a marvel; it remains, in its way, a subject of awe. Between the River Tees and the town of Billingham in the northeast of England there is a sprawling chemical works just over 100 years old.

In the 1920s, as part of the newly formed Imperial Chemical Industries (ici), it was feted as a miracle of modernity; to a visiting Aldous Huxley it was “one of those ordered universes that exist…as pure logic in the midst of the larger world of planless incoherence”, a forerunner of the sort of future he would explore and deplore in “Brave New World”.

In the 1940s its strategic importance made it a target for the German Luftwaffe; by the 1960s it employed 20,000 people, the largest plant of its sort in the world.

Today cf Industries, the American firm which now owns the site, employs just 200 people on Teesside. Behind its perimeter fences much of the once thronged area borders on the derelict. But the plant can still fulfil the function for which it was first built. Billingham fixes nitrogen.

“Fixing” nitrogen means turning the element’s chemically inert gaseous form, which makes up 78% of the atmosphere, into a more reactive compound.

For the rest of this article: