Terra Sigillata

i-912ee500618e81db7b1b89a504c4d9af-Ertl_400dpi.jpgClean(er) car exhaust, the ability to make fertilizer from nitrogen in the air, and the promise of hydrogen fuel cells are among the practical applications of the surface, or solid state, chemistry methods elucidated by this year’s winner, Prof Gerhard Ertl, of Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Berlin. Dr Ertl was director of the Department of Physical Chemistry at the Fritz-Haber for nearly 20 years before stepping down into a professor emeritus position in 2004.

Ertl was instrumental in several advances in understanding how chemical reactions take place on a solid surface, usually catalyzed by metals such as platinum or palladium. Surface chemistry happens all around us. That’s why it is difficult to keep metal surfaces clean and why stainless steel is a chemical miracle. Corrosion is the term for these normally unwanted chemical reactions and is as important in industry as it is in everyday life. Changing the metal composition of a surface material can dramatically affect its ability to undergo these reactions; think about this next time you look at the surface of the airplane you are boarding.

Among the earliest of these solid-phase reactions was the 1913 Haber-Bosch process whereby nitrogen from the air was converted to ammonia by the iron-catalyzed addition of hydrogen. Ammonia is the starting block for synthetic fertilizers. Haber won the Nobel in 1918 for this discovery but it wasn’t until Ertl’s work in the 1970s that allowed us to understand exactly how this happens (the bonds of hydrogen and nitrogen must both be broken for this reaction to proceed).

Ertl also elucidated the chemistry of the conversion of toxic carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide on a platinum surface, the chemistry that occurs everyday in your automobile’s catalytic converter. True to the elegance of European science, Ertl’s home institution hosts an animation of this platinum chemistry set to a commissioned classic music composition called, “On Platinum,” by Philip Mayers.

More information will accumulate throughout the day at the Nobel chemistry site.

Comments

  1. #1 toby
    October 10, 2007

    This year’s Nobels (so far) have a distinctly European flavour.

    I don’t think any of the winners were born in the US, though two of the three Medicine winners are US citizens.

    Two born in Germany, two in Britain, one in France, one in Italy.

  2. #2 Andy
    October 10, 2007

    Apparently Ertl has been a favorite candidate for some years, so the surface chemists are all happy this morning.

    Am I the only person who thinks that the prizes are getting rather less ink/pixels than they would if an American won?

  3. #3 Gerard Harbison
    October 10, 2007

    Actually, many of the surface chemists are very unhappy this morning. The award looks very much like a deliberate slight to Gabor Somorjai of Berkeley, who is usually regarded as the co-founder of modern surface chemistry, and trained most of the active researchers in the field in the US. Somorjai and Ertl have identical h-indexes and shared the Wolf prize in 1998.

  4. #4 Andy
    October 10, 2007

    Gerard — interesting. Apparently there was also a third person left out of the physics prize yesterday, Steve Parkin (?) who has won awards with Fert and Gruenberg.

  5. #5 Gerard Harbison
    October 11, 2007

    A good working rule for predicting shared Nobel awards is this:

    If you identify a primarily American discovery, than any European with even a plausible case for sharing will also win.

    If you identify a primarily European discovery, then American co-discoverers will be omitted.

  6. #6 Janne
    October 11, 2007

    Another working rule: If a Nobel recipient has been born in the US; or did his work in the US; or moved to US after his winning work; or moved to a US territory after retiring; or has close relatives in the US then US media will portray it as a US win. Feel free to replace “Nobel recipient” with any similar achievement or event.

  7. #7 Janne
    October 12, 2007

    Addendum: I realized my above comment sounds a bit negative. I think it’s a good thing. You have at least three residences: residence at birth; at the time the research was done; and residence when receiving the award. And for many researchers that makes for two or three different countries, all of which can claim a piece of the reflected fame. Which means more happy people in more places.