(b. Goldschmieden, near Breslau, Germany, 11 October 1884; d. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 30 March 1949)
Bergius became involved with chemistry in his very early years. His Father was head of a chemical plant and his mother was the daughter of a classics professor; thus, he grew up in a home where learning was highly valued. Following high school and a practical course in the laboratory of a foundry, Bergius began his higher education in Leipzig. In 1907 he passed his doctorate examination and became, successively, assistant to Nernst, Haber, and Ernst Bodenstein. All three allowed him to participate in their research.
In 1909 Bergius qualified as a university lecturer in Hannover, and thereupon set up a private laboratory where he could conduct his own research. Systematically he began work on the influence of high pressure and high temperature, seeking to clarify the conditions in nature under which wood was transformed into coal. Within a short time, Bergius succeeded in developing a coal very similar to that produced in nature through his process of carbonization of peat and cellulose.
At the same time Bergius studied the origin of petroleum and conducted experiments in which he sought to make carboniferous materials react with hydrogen to yield liquid products. As early as 1913 he was granted (with John Billwiller) his first patent for the manufacture of liquid hydrocarbons from coal. Needless to say, research of this kind could not be conducted in a private laboratory. Bergius, who had acquired a fine reputation in scientific circles, became head of a new research laboratory at the Goldschmidt Company in Essen in 1914. The owner, Karl Goldschmidt, was an enthusiastic friend and promoter of Bergius. Soon afterward a private experimental plant was constructed for laboratory experiments, continuous processing of petroleum reserves (the daily output was twenty tons), and commercial experiments.
Bergius recognized that the hydrogenation-dehydrogenation balance was based on temperature, partial hydrogen pressure, and the size of the moleculesin the hydrocarbon. For petroleum reserves, slight hydrogenation was found to be sufficient; hydrogen-poor coal, however, required greater hydrogenation before it could be thermally cracked. Hydrogenation of carbon was conducted in two stages, the first being to process the carbon into a paste with oil.
Conditions after World War I made it impossible for Bergius to continue his work, and in 1925 he sold his patent rights to the Badische Anilin- und Sodafabrik in Ludwigshafen, which had begun experimenting with hydrogenation of carbon. He then left the field and dedicated himself to a new problem: hydrolysis of wood by means of acid. With Hägglund, Bergius developed a process by which he obtained complete hydrolysis of wood cellulose by using concentrated hydrochloric acid. The product was either dextrose or, after transformation, ethanol or a nutrient yeast with a 50 percent albumin content.
In 1931 Bergius and Karl Bosch were awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Bergius was one of the most individualistic of research scholars. He persistently attempted to go his own way and to remain completely independent, but the tasks to which he committed himself exceeded the ability of a single individual.
After World War II, no longer able to find work in Germany, Bergius founded a company in Madrid and in 1947 became a scientific adviser to the Argentine government.
I. Original Works. Bergius’ works include Die Anwendung hoher Drucke bei chemischen Vorgängen und eine Nachbildung des Entstehungsprozesses der Steinkohle (Halle, 1913); “Die Verflüssigung der Kohle,” in Zeitschrift des Vereins deutscher lngenieure, 69 (1926); “Die Herstellung von Zuncker aus Holz: und ähnlichen Naturstoffen,” in Ergebnisse der angewandten physikalischen Chemie, Vol. I (Leipzig, 1931); “Gewinnung von Alkohol und Glucose aus Holz,” in Chemical Age (London), 29 (1933), 481–483; and “Chemische Reaktionen unterhohem Druck,” in Les prix Nobel en 1931 (Stockholm, 1933), which also includes an autobiographical notice.