Innovation management in the Belle Epoque
How plasma went commercial in 1903

*Corresponding author
1. Micro Flow Process Technology, Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry, Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands
2. Innovation Management, Verfahrenstechnik & Engineering, Evonik Technology & Infrastrukture GmbH, Hanau, Germany


This article features a historic industrial development concerning chemical synthesis of nitric acid from nitrogen, the Birkeland-Eyde process, which was started up in 1903. The whole development was done at great technological risk and also at the financial risk of having not enough backup by investors. It is a truly systemic development which needed a full team with different skills. In a similar way, networking was needed to ensure to have investors supporting the costly development and scale-up. Already at that time, this was a multinational initiative and an ad-site evaluation of a multi-headed expert team gave the final decision. The decision, while aiming at thorough technological check, was finally guided by the motivation and interaction capability of the developers. Thus, the human factor was finally decisive in a complex systemic development. This historic recap provides a nice learning curve as well for today’s innovation management.


Innovation management is not an invention of our modern times, yet it virtually began with the industrial revolution. The time before World War I has been glorified as Belle Epoque (1870-1914). Around the turn of the second-last century (1900), the industrialization of chemistry had just begun a few decades ago and awaited still its greatest processes to come. Chemical companies of the first hour like the Farbwerke vorm. Meister Lucius & Brüning AG (the later Hoechst Company) and the Badische Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik (later BASF) grew considerably in those years into the dimension which is now familiar to us.
A particular interesting industrial history chapter is concerned with the so-called N-fixation, the conversion of nitrogen from air to ammonia and to NOx/nitric acid to give fertilizers (ammonium nitrate). After the turn of the 1900 century, this changed the world and the Haber-Bosch process become the most widely used industrial process for ammonia making. The provision of large amounts of fertilizers on a bulk-industrial scale has considerably contributed to the growth of mankind. From that point on ...