Friedrich Bergius was born on October 11, 1884, in Goldschmieden near Breslau, Silesia. He belonged to an old respected family of scientists, theologians, civil servants, army officers, and business men. His grandfather was Professor of Economics in Breslau and his father owned a chemical factory in Goldschmieden.
Bergius was educated in Breslau and whilst still at school took great interest in his father’s factory where he was able to study various working methods under the guidance of his father and thus became acquainted with chemicotechnical processes. The time spent in the laboratories and the works there later stood him in good stead, as already at a very early age he obtained considerable insight into industrial as well as scientific matters.
Before entering University, Bergius was sent to the Ruhr for six months by his father, where he studied the practical aspects of a large metallurgical plant and profited greatly by this experience.
In 1903 he entered Breslau University to read chemistry under Ladenburg, Abegg and Herz; after doing one year’s military service he proceeded to Leipzig University in 1905 and worked under Hantzsch on his thesis Über absolute Schwefelsäure als Lösungsmittel (On absolute sulphuric acid as a solvent). This work was completed in Breslau under Abegg, and Bergius received his degree at Leipzig in 1907. The lively scientific atmosphere in the laboratories of Hantzsch and Abegg induced Bergius to devote himself to a career in scientific research; for this reason he worked for two further terms at Nernst‘s Institute in Berlin and then went to Karlsruhe to study under Haber for one term in 1909.
The work which was being carried out there on the chemical equilibrium in gas reactions, in particular that on the synthesis of ammonia, prompted his own research in Hanover in 1909. He started with a detailed investigation on the dissociation of calcium peroxide and developed a practical method for laboratory work at pressures up to 300 atmospheres.
The equipment available in the laboratories of the Technische Hochschule in Hanover soon proved insufficient and in1910 Bergius established his own private laboratory in Hanover, which was gradually extended by several workshops and plants, and where he employed a number of collaborators. The most important result of his research was the hydrogenating effect of hydrogen on coal and heavy oils under high pressure, in 1912 and 1913.
It was not easy to obtain the means for maintaining this laboratory, especially as the scale of the experiments had to be enlarged in order to apply the laboratory methods to a small industrial scale. Therefore in 1914 Bergius accepted an offer made already previously by Dr. Karl Goldschmidt to transfer his laboratory to the Essen works of the firm Th. Goldschmidt A.G.; shortly afterwards he also accepted an executive position in this firm.
For a short time in 1911 Bergius lectured on technical gas reactions, equilibrium theory, and metallurgy at the Technische Hochschule in Hanover. However, the outbreak of the First World War and the increased rate of work on the problem of liquefaction of coal made it impossible for him to continue with his teaching activity. From 1914 to 1921 he lived in Berlin.
A comparatively large industrial plant for the technical development of the hydrogenating process was set up in Rheinau near Mannheim. It was soon found that the scope of this research work was too large for one firm alone and after the end of the war Bergius endeavoured to find firms suitable for collaborating in the development of hydrogenation. Apart from groups of German companies, he also induced the Shell Trust and a number of British enterprises, in particular the coal industry, to collaborate with him. However, in critical times he still had to bear the whole responsibility and risk for the further development of the process. Finally, in 1927, he was able to conclude his own work on the liquefaction of coal, after the practical possibilities had been proved on a large scale. The I.G. Farbenindustrie and Imperial Chemical Industries then took up the work on an industrial scale.
From that time onwards Bergius devoted himself to a process of obtaining sugar from cellulose in wood, on which he had already worked during the First World War. He succeeded after 15 years’ work and an industrial plant was set up, also in the Rheinau works. It is amazing with what intensity Bergius took up the second part of his life’s work, namely this hydrolysis of cellulose in wood and similar substances to sugar. It seems as if the well-known difficulties of working with highly concentrated hydrochloric acid had presented a special challenge to Bergius. Initially the process was taken up only in England and only during the thirties did Bergius manage to continue these experiments in Germany; his main concern was to rationalize the process and to ensure complete recovery of the hydrochloric acid used by constructing intricate devices. In 1921 he moved to Heidelberg, in order to be near his technical work in Mannheim-Rheinau, and at the same time to be in contact with Heidelberg University.
His home was international, and always full of mentally alive people. He had done great work and had received most of the honours possible during the eventful epoch of his lifetime. He received the degree of Dr. Phil. from the University of Heidelberg and the honorary doctorate from the University of Hanover; he was awarded the Liebig Medal and was elected to the Board of Directors of many associations and companies interested in coal and oil. In 1931 he shared the Nobel Prize with Carl Bosch for their contributions to the invention and development of chemical high-pressure methods.
After the last war it was impossible for Bergius to find a field of work in Germany which would have done justice to his abilities. He emigrated to the Argentine, where death put an end to his eventful career in Buenos Aires in 1949.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.
Friedrich Bergius died on March 30, 1949.