The Swedish Academy noted in particular Ertl's work into the Haber-Bosch process, a method for extracting nitrogen from the air in the form of ammonia.
Ammonia is difficult to produce on a large scale but is a vital component of artificial fertilizers.
"This reaction, which functions using an iron surface as its catalyst, has enormous economic significance, because the availability of nitrogen for growing plants is often restricted," the Academy said.
It also noted Ertl's research on the oxidation of carbon monoxide by platinum—the reaction that takes place in the catalytic converters of modern cars to clean their exhaust.
"I am delighted that the prize recognizes a field of chemistry that often receives little public attention and yet has transformed lives in so many ways," Catherine Hunt, president of the American Chemical Society, said in a press release.
"Research in surface chemistry already has underpinned innovations ranging from air pollution control technology to modern electronics products. In the future, this research will help us tap new sources of renewable fuels, for instance, and produce smaller, more powerful electronics products."
On Monday three scientists—Mario R. Capecchi and Oliver Smithies of the United States and Sir Martin J. Evans of Britain—won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work that led to the creation of "knockout" mice, a powerful tool for studying genetic diseases.
And yesterday France's Albert Fert and Germany's Peter Grünberg were announced winners of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics for independently discovering the phenomenon that makes modern hard-drive technology work.
Prizes in literature, peace, and economics will be announced in the next several days.
The awards, first given out in 1901 according to the will of chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel, will be officially presented on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death.
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