German marks birthday with the Nobel Prize in chemistry

Times Staff Writer

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 Wednesday.

Gerhard Ertl, a professor emeritus 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 participating in the reaction at any 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 surrounding air.

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.


Among other reactions, Ertl studied:

* How molecular hydrogen dissociates into atomic hydrogen on the surface of a metal, a reaction that is the foundation of fuel cell technology for powering cars and other vehicles.

* How atmospheric nitrogen dissociates into atomic nitrogen on the iron particles used as a catalyst in the Haber-Bosch process, which is used to produce ammonia fertilizer for agriculture.

* How toxic carbon monoxide is converted into harmless carbon dioxide in catalytic converters in automobiles.


Those studies not only provided key information about the processes in question, but they also provided a detailed experimental guide that could be used by chemists to study other surface reactions.

“Research in surface chemistry already has underpinned innovations ranging from air pollution control technology to modern electronic products,” said Catherine T. Hunt, president of the American Chemical Society.

“In the future, this research will help us tap new sources of renewable fuels, for instance, and produce smaller, more powerful electronic products.”

It has also led to a better understanding of many aspects of atmospheric chemistry.


The chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants that destroy Earth’s ozone layer, for example, react with ozone on the surface of ice crystals in the upper atmosphere, and Ertl’s techniques have been used to study the process.

Fellow German Peter Gruenberg, 68, a scientist at the Institute of Solid State Research in Juelich, Germany, shared the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a physicist, said Wednesday in Berlin, “I am very happy that we achieved it this year to get a Nobel Prize in both disciplines -- physics and chemistry.

“I believe this is a general honor for scientists in Germany.”


The Nobel prizes, each carrying $1.5 million in award money, will be presented in Stockholm on Dec. 10.


Times researcher Christian Retzlaff in Berlin contributed to this report.