A German researcher who laid the foundation for studying surface reactions important in atmospheric chemistry, the production of fertilizers and the operation of catalytic converters in automobiles was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday.
Gerhard Ertl, an emeritus professor at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin received the call from Stockholm on his 71st birthday.
“This is the most beautiful birthday gift that one can imagine,” he said. “It’s not easy to realize that what they call the coronation in science happened on my birthday, of all days. There’s nothing more nice imaginable.”
Although chemistry is typically thought to be performed in test tubes or giant industrial vats, some of the most important chemical reactions take place on the surfaces of metals, ceramics and even ice.
Such reactions are notoriously difficult to study because the amount of chemicals actually participating in the reaction at any one time is extremely small. Moreover, any signal from the chemicals can be easily overwhelmed by that from contaminants on the surface or gases in the air over the surface.
Ertl used high-vacuum chambers, powerful electron microscopes and spectroscopic techniques adapted from the electronics industry to study such reactions in detail, paving the way for other researchers to follow.