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  • Ertl Awarded Chemistry Nobel
Oct 2007
STOCKHOLM, Sweden, Oct. 12, 2007 -- Gerhard Ertl, emeritus professor at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2007 for groundbreaking studies in surface chemistry.

"The Max Planck researcher has succeeded in providing a detailed description of how chemical reactions take place on solid surfaces," the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm said in a statement Thursday.
Gerhard Ertl from the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin, Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry 2007 (Photo: Max Planck Society/Norbert Michalke)
"This science is important for the chemical industry and can help us to understand such varied processes as why iron rusts, how fuel cells function and how the catalysts in our cars work. Chemical reactions on catalytic surfaces play a vital role in many industrial operations, such as the production of artificial fertilizers. Surface chemistry can even explain the destruction of the ozone layer, as vital steps in the reaction actually take place on the surfaces of small crystals of ice in the stratosphere. The semiconductor industry is yet another area that depends on knowledge of surface chemistry."

It was thanks to processes developed in the semiconductor industry that the modern science of surface chemistry began to emerge in the 1960s. Gerhard Ertl was one of the first to see the potential of these new techniques, the academy said. "Step by step, he has created a methodology for surface chemistry by demonstrating how different experimental procedures can be used to provide a complete picture of a surface reaction. This science requires advanced high-vacuum experimental equipment as the aim is to observe how individual layers of atoms and molecules behave on the extremely pure surface of a metal, for instance. It must therefore be possible to determine exactly which element is admitted to the system. Contamination could jeopardize all the measurements. Acquiring a complete picture of the reaction requires great precision and a combination of many different experimental techniques."

Gerhard Ertl has founded an experimental school of thought by showing how reliable results can be attained in this difficult area of research, the academy said. "His insights have provided the scientific basis of modern surface chemistry: His methodology is used in both academic research and the industrial development of chemical processes."

The approach developed by Ertl is based in part on his studies of the Haber-Bosch process, in which nitrogen is extracted from the air for inclusion in 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. Ertl has also studied the oxidation of carbon monoxide on platinum, a reaction that takes place in the catalyst of cars to clean exhaust emissions.

The prize, which Ertl will not share with any other colleague, is worth $1.5 million.

Ertle said although he had been aware that he was on the list of candidates, he was nevertheless at a loss for words after hearing that he had won the Nobel Prize, after which his staff gathered outside his office to share a champagne toast. "Now the phones are ringing off the hook," he said.

"Peter Gruss, president of the Max Planck Society, said Wednesday, "This award is a special gift for Mr. Ertl, who also celebrates his 71st birthday today. I have the highest regard for Mr. Ertl -- not only as an outstanding scientist but also as an individual of great integrity, whose commitment to the Max Planck Society has been invaluable. The Nobel Prize demonstrates once again how essential fundamental research is for our society." 

A Nobel Prize also went to a German researcher on Tuesday: Peter Grünberg of the Jülich Research Centre received the Physics Prize together with the French scientist Albert Fert, he was honored for discovering a magnetic effect which is still used on computer hard drives today. (See also: Nanotechnologists Win Nobel)

The Nobels will be presented in a ceremony on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, founder of the award, whose goal was to honor those who each year "shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."

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