Surface Chemistry Work Garners German Scientist Nobel

October 10, 2007

German scientist Gerhard Ertl today was announced the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking studies of chemical processes that take place on solid surfaces.

The work paved the way for technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells and automobile catalytic converters. It also helped unravel longstanding mysteries such as exactly how ozone degrades and rust forms.

"Gerhard Ertl has founded an experimental school of thought by showing how reliable results can be attained in this difficult area of research," said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which made the prize announcement this morning in Stockholm.

"His insights have provided the scientific basis of modern surface chemistry," the announcement continued, and "his methodology is used in both academic research and the industrial development of chemical processes."

For Ertl, the 10-million-Swedish-kronor (1.5-million-U.S.-dollar) prize is just another reason to celebrate today—his 71st birthday.

"This is the best birthday present you can give somebody," he said in a phone call with the Swedish Academy.

"This is the greatest honor you can think of in the life of a scientist," he added.

Solid Work

Most chemical reactions are studied either in gas form or liquid form.

In the 1960s, however, that began to change with the advent of the semiconductor industry, which builds transistors, diodes, and other electronic components needed by computers and cell phones.

Ertl, who works at the Fritz Haber Institute at the Max Planck Society in Berlin, built on that work to come up with ways to study in detail chemical reactions that occur on solids.

This was a difficult problem, because such research is very sensitive to contamination and requires high-vacuum equipment, extremely pure materials, and precise measurements.

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