Chemistry Nobel: Reactions on solid surfaces


The Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded this morning, went to Gerhard Ertl of the Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (Max Planck Institute, in English), Berlin, Germany, “for his studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces.”

One more win for Europeans this year — another guy not the product of U.S. public schools. So much for my predictions, so far.

These awards for 2007 seem to be very practically oriented. The press release puts the Chemistry award in focus quickly:

Modern surface chemistry – fuel cells, artificial fertilizers and clean exhaust

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2007 is awarded for groundbreaking studies in surface chemistry. This science is important for the chemical industry and can help us to understand such varied processes as why iron rusts, how fuel cells function and how the catalysts in our cars work. Chemical reactions on catalytic surfaces play a vital role in many industrial operations, such as the production of artificial fertilizers. 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 semiconductor industry is yet another area that depends on knowledge of surface chemistry.

Even the technical, scientific explanation seems easy to follow:

The Nobel Prize in chemistry for 2007 is awarded to Gerhard Ertl for his thorough studies of fundamental molecular processes at the gas-solid interface. When a small molecule hits a solid surface from a gas phase there are a number of possible outcomes. The molecule may simply either bounce back or be adsorbed. It is the latter case that carries the most interesting possibilities. The interaction with the atoms of the surface can be so strong that the molecule dissociates into constituent groups or atoms. The molecule can also react directly with surface groups and change the chemical properties of the surface. A third possibility is that the adsorbed molecule encounters another previously adsorbed one and there is a binary chemical reaction on the surface.

There are very important practical situations where these scenarios are the key chemical events. Heterogeneous catalysis has been a central process in the chemical industry for a century. The agriculture of the world has been supplied with fertilizers rich in nitrogen since 1913 due to the Haber-Bosch process, where the nitrogen of the air is converted to ammonia using an iron-based catalyst. Today every car produced has a catalyst system that converts carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons to carbon dioxide in the exhaust gases. Also the content of nitrous gases is reduced through the action of the catalyst. Thin semiconductor layers are produced by chemical vapor deposition (CVD) in large quantities in the microelectronics industry. Currently large resources are devoted to the development of efficient fuel cells that would enable the use of hydrogen as a standard vehicle fuel. Corrosion, which is caused by chemical reactions at surfaces, is a major problem both in everyday life and in more sophisticated industrial contexts such as in nuclear power plants and airplanes. Damage by corrosion may be reduced by adjusting the composition of the surface so that it is protected by an oxide layer formed in air. It is clear that chemical processes at surfaces play a central role in wide span of economically highly significant applications of chemical knowledge to the solution of practical problems.

Has globalization already hit so hard, and has U.S. education fallen so far, that the U.S. dominance of Nobels is already at an end? One year does not make a trend. We can hope.

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