26th June 1976

Jersey man who made bread from air dies

Jersey-born Robert Le Rossignol saved the world from starvation. Born in St Helier on 27 April 1884, he studied postgraduate chemistry at University College London (UCL) before moving to Germany in the early 1900s. There, he worked with Fritz Haber at Karlsruhe on a process for quickly creating synthetic ammonia.

According to Dr Deri Sheppard in the 2009 issue of ChemUCL, the newsletter of the UCL Department of Chemistry, “by the time the desk-top apparatus was demonstrated to BASF on July 2nd 1909 it produced ~2cm3 of liquefied ammonia per minute for five hours… subsequently, the world was capable of making ‘bread from air’.”

Alternative uses

More importantly, the process could also be used to create artificial fertiliser at a time when the world’s supply of saltpeter was approaching exhaustion and it was looking increasingly unlikely that the planet would be able to continue supporting a growing population.

Unfortunately, Le Rossignol’s contribution to the research seems to have been overlooked in official circles, with the Nobel Committee awarding the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Fritz Haber alone. Further, the ammonia production process that the two men formulated is known as the Haber Process, or Haber-Bosch Process, not the Haber-Le Rossignol Process. At least he earned royalties from the patent attached to the process, which may have been some comfort.

War effort contribution

Le Rossignol remained in Germany throughout the First World War, and spent the Second World War outside London, so didn’t experience the occupation of his island of birth. However, his contribution to the war effort was considerable. While stationed at GEC, he developed valves for use in radar and radio, and was highly influential in the development of the cooled anode transmitter, or CAT valve, which came to be used all over the world for long-range radio broadcasts (including for BBC Radio 4’s long wave service).

Le Rossignol and his wife, Emily, retired to Beaconsfield, where they built a house called St Helier. Emily died there in October 1975. Robert died in hospital eight months later.


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