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German Scientist Wins Nobel Chemistry Prize

The 2007 Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to Gerhard Ertl of the Max Planck Society in Berlin. Kevin Billinghurst has the story from Stockholm.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honors Professor Ertl for his groundbreaking studies of chemical reactions on solid surfaces.

He is credited with creating a methodology for demonstrating how different experimental procedures can be used to provide a complete picture of a surface reaction, observing how individual layers of atoms behave on the extremely pure surface of a metal.

Professor Gunnar von Heijne of the Academy of Sciences explains the importance of Ertl's work.

"From high school we tend to think of chemical processes as happening in water or perhaps in a gas, but in fact a whole lot of scientifically very interesting and practically important chemistry happens on solid surfaces," he noted. "Think of iron rust, think of catalytic converters on the exhaust pipes of our cars, think of technologies such as fuel cells. Gedrhard Ertl's scientific insights have laid a firm foundation for modern surface chemistry, and his careful methodological approach has become a model for both academic research and for industrial process development."

Nobel science prizes are given for contributions to basic understanding of nature, but Professor Ertl's work also has practical environmental applications. He has studied the process by which nitrogen can be extracted from air for inclusion in artificial fertilizers, a field of huge importance in agriculture. He has also explained oxidation of carbon monoxide on platinum, a reaction that takes place in catalytic converters to clean auto-exhaust emissions.

Professor Ertl was reached by telephone minutes after hearing he had been chosen, incidentally on his 71st birthday.

"I was really speechless," he said. "I am very surprised. This is the greatest honor you can think of in the life of a scientist."

On December 10, the 111th anniversary of the death of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, Professor Ertl and the other winners of the 2007 Nobel Prizes in science and literature will come to Sweden to receive their awards in a gala ceremony at Stockholm City Hall.