Published online 10 October 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2007.159
Corrected online: 11 October 2007

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Chemistry Nobel makes a great birthday gift

Solid-surface chemist wins plaudit on seventy-first birthday.

Gerhard ErtlHappy birthday to Gerhard Ertl.Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

Tonight is going to see an extremely happy party thrown for Gerhard Ertl.

Not only is it his seventy-first birthday, but he has also won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for his “studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces”.

Ertl’s research laid the groundwork for a science that, as the Nobel prize committee notes, allows us to understand processes ranging from the rusting of iron at the surface of our cars to the destruction of the ozone layer at the surface of ice crystals in the stratosphere.

Ertl, who in 2004 retired as director of the Max Planck Society’s Fritz-Haber Institute in Berlin, said he was not expecting another Nobel to be awarded to a German after countryman Peter Grünberg won yesterday’s physics prize (see The physics prize inside the iPod). “I was very surprised,” he said in a broadcasted phone call with the Nobel foundation. “It is the greatest honour you can think of.”

Asked what gifts he had received on his birthday, apart from science’s greatest honour, Ertl replied, “I got a walking stick.”

Surface insight

Ertl’s main impact was not in determining it was important to study surfaces (the growth of the semiconductor industry hammered that home), nor in developing instrumentation to study them. Rather he had the inspiration to see how various techniques already in use could be adapted and stitched together to provide a complete picture of how molecules behave at a surface. Such insights are crucial to understanding the action of catalysts – materials that speed up chemical reactions without being used up.

Ertl’s insights “provided the scientific basis of modern surface chemistry”, says the prize committee.

Perhaps the most impressive individual work undertaken by Ertl involved proving the exact mechanism of the Haber–Bosch process, a reaction vital to the chemical industry and the production of fertilizer. The process converts hydrogen and nitrogen into ammonia using an iron catalyst. Using a variety of spectroscopic techniques — which use the interaction of electromagnetic radiation (such as light) with materials to determine the properties of surface molecules — Ertl uncovered how and when the strong nitrogen bond is broken during this process, proving which of many suggested mechanisms was correct.

In a statement, Andrea Sella, lecturer in chemistry at University College London, said the Haber–Bosch process was “the industrial process which can safely be said to have had the widest impact on mankind”. He added: “Gerhard Ertl was one of the first chemists to start taking a very detailed look at what happens on the surface — how the individual molecules land and stick to it, how they are split into individual atoms, and how they migrate across the surface to generate the final product, ammonia.”

Ertl’s other work has included determining how reactions proceed in catalytic converters and how hydrogen molecules organize themselves at metal surfaces.

Well done

Graham Hutchings, a physical chemist at Cardiff University, UK, said the award was “extremely justifiable”. “It’s superb that the field of surface science has been recognized. He’s taken a look at how molecules interact with surfaces at a very fundamental level. The number of devices that can be made because of this fundamental understanding is immense.”

The chemical community has welcomed this year’s award — not least because it has gone to a ‘proper’ chemist, rather than one who could be considered a biologist, as has happened in many recent years.

Many in the community are, however, wondering why the award was not shared by Gabor Somorjai, a surface chemist from the University of California, Berkeley. Ertl and Somorjai shared the 1998 Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry for their work in surface science. 

Corrected:

This article originally mistakenly referred to Andrea Sella as 'she' rather than 'he'. With apologies this has been corrected.
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