The Nobel prize for chemistry has been awarded to Gerhard Ertl, now based at Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Berlin, for his work in establishing a fundamental experimental approach to surface chemistry.
His experiments laid the foundations, quite literally, for the development of catalytic converters. He also contributed to our understanding of the Haber-Bosch process, which removes nitrogen from the air so that it can be added to fertilisers.
Ertl started his career in the semiconductor industry, where he became interested in surface chemistry. He went on to develop a methodology for the science, showing how different procedures could be used to build up a complete and reliable picture of surface chemistry.
The difficulty with experimenting in surface chemistry is keeping track of the atoms and molecules on the boundary between the surface and the environment. Work must be done in a vacuum, lest the atoms you want to watch be contaminated by anything else. Working out exactly what has and has not been allowed into an experimental system is the key, and requires a combination of techniques. This is where Ertl's work was so vital.
As well as the practical, Ertl's work has shed light on some fundamental processes, such as why (and how) iron rusts. His techniques have even helped to understand the process that destroys the ozone layer. Some of the reactions involved take place on the surface of very small ice crystals high in the stratosphere.
In other Nobel news the academy awarded the prize for literature to Doris Lessing, author of The Golden Notebook and The Good Terrorist, among others. ®