He was born in Breslau, Germany and from 1886 until 1891 he studied at the University of Heidelberg under Robert Bunsen, at the University of Berlin in the group of A. W. Hoffmann, and at the Technical College of Charlottenburg (today the Technical University of Berlin) under Carl Liebermann. Before starting his own academic career he worked at his father's chemical business and in the Institute of Technology at Zürich with Georg Lunge. During his time in Karlsruhe from 1894 until 1911 he and Carl Bosch developed the catalytic formation of ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen. This was important, especially during World War I, since ammonia is used in industrial processes such as explosives production.
He was also active in the research of combustion reactions, the separation of gold from sea water, adsorption effects, and electrochemistry. A large part of his work from 1911 to 1933 was done at the Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry at Berlin-Dahlem. It should also be mentioned that he was also active in the first gas attacks in World War I.
He died in Basel after a grave illness.