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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 October 2007, 09:53 GMT 10:53 UK
Surface chemistry awarded Nobel
Gerhard Ertl celebrates his Nobel Prize. Image: AFP.
Prof Ertl founded a new school of experimental thought
German scientist Gerhard Ertl has been awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his studies of processes on solid surfaces.

His work has enhanced areas as diverse as the process used to make fertiliser, the production of catalytic converters and hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The Nobel Prize is an international award administered by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden.

The award was announced at the Swedish Academy of Sciences on Wednesday.

Speaking on a telephone to the Academy, Gerhard Ertl, who is 71 today, said: "This is the best birthday present you can give to somebody."

This is the greatest honour you can think of in the life of a scientist
Gerhard Ertl, Max Planck Society
On his reaction to hearing the news, Professor Ertl said he was "speechless".

"When a German took the Nobel in physics yesterday, it was clear to me another German would not be awarded the Nobel in chemistry.

"This is the greatest honour you can think of in the life of a scientist."

The professor of physical chemistry is based at the Fritz-Haber Institute at the Max-Planck Society in Berlin.

Interesting and practical

Professor Geoff Thornton, professor of physical chemistry at University College London, called Professor Ertl "one of the pioneers of surface science".

Gunnar von Heijne, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said: "We tend to think of chemistry as something like liquid or gas.

No doubt there will be disappointment in some quarters that the prize was not more widely shared
Prof Andrea Sella, UCL
"But surface chemistry is scientifically very interesting and practically very important. Chemistry happens on solid surfaces.

"Think of iron rust, think of catalytic converters on the exhaust pipes of our cars, think of technologies such as fuel cells. In all these cases, we are talking about surface chemistry."

The modern science of surface chemistry began to emerge in the 1960s, out of processes used in the semiconductor industry.

The Nobel Committee said that Professor Ertl was one of the first to see the potential of these new techniques.

High precision

Step-by-step, Professor Ertl created a methodology for surface chemistry by demonstrating how different experimental procedures could be used to provide a complete picture of a surface reaction.

This field of science requires advanced equipment to observe how individual layers of atoms and molecules behave on the extremely pure surface of a metal, for instance.

Fuel cell station. Image: BBC
Fuel cell technology is one area that owes much to surface chemistry
Contamination could jeopardise all the measurements, so acquiring a complete picture of the reaction requires great precision and a combination of many different experimental techniques.

The Nobel Committee said Professor Ertl had "founded an experimental school of thought by showing how reliable results can be attained in this difficult area of research".

The statement continued: "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."

Professor Andrea Sella, from the department of chemistry at University College London, UK, commented: "Over the years [Gerhard Ertl] has gone on to look at a wide number of reactions on all kinds of surfaces."

'Noteworthy' award

But he added: "It is noteworthy that this year's prize was awarded to Prof Ertl alone.

"There have been many key players in this area... no doubt there will be disappointment in some quarters that the prize was not more widely shared."

Geoff Thornton added: "One of Ertl's great successes was achieving a detailed understanding of ammonia formation from nitrogen and hydrogen over an iron catalyst, in the so-called Haber process."

In the Haber-Bosch process, nitrogen is extracted from the air for inclusion in artificial fertilisers. This reaction, which functions using an iron surface as its catalyst, has huge economic importance.

Professor Ertl has also studied the oxidation of carbon monoxide on platinum, a reaction that takes place in cars to clean exhaust emissions.

Every year since 1901, the Nobel Prize has been awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and for peace.

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