Surface chemistry pioneer

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Gerhard Ertl
Gerhard Ertl

Gerhard Ertl, on his 71st birthday, wins chemistry Nobel

STOCKHOLM: Gerhard Ertl of Germany won the 2007 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for studies of chemical reactions on solid surfaces, which are key to understanding such questions as why the ozone layer is thinning.

Professor Ertl’s research laid the foundation of modern surface chemistry, which has helped explain how fuel cells produce energy without pollution, how catalytic converters clean up car exhaust and even why iron rusts, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

Professor Ertl, who turned 71 on Wednesday, said that winning the Nobel was “the best birthday present that one could imagine.” “At first, I was speechless and tears sprang to my eyes, I have to confess,” he told reporters outside his office in Berlin.

Professor Ertl — the first German to win the chemistry prize since 1988 — showed how reliable results could be obtained in a difficult area of research, and his findings applied in both academic studies and industrial development, the academy said.

“Gerhard Ertl has succeeded in providing a detailed description of how chemical reactions take place on surfaces and has in this way laid the foundation of modern surface chemistry,” the citation said.

The academy highlighted Professor Ertl’s studies of a chemical process in which nitrogen is extracted from the air, using iron as a catalyst, for inclusion in artificial fertilizers. That process has had “enormous economic significance,” the academy said.

Professor Ertl has also studied the oxidation for carbon monoxide on platinum, a reaction that helps clean exhaust emissions in the catalytic converters of cars. Automakers worldwide have in recent years been trying to produce cars that are more fuel-efficient and less harmful to the environment.

Other scientists have been able to build on his research and methodology to further understanding of surface chemistry, which is a key field of research for the chemical industry.

“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 award citation said.

Professor Ertl’s work has paved the way for development of cleaner energy sources and will guide the development of fuel cells, said Astrid Graslund, secretary of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. Fuel cells produce electricity from hydrogen and oxygen with only water and heat as byproducts.

Professor Ertl is a Professor Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute, one of Germany’s most prominent research centres. — AP

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