Nobel Prize in Chemistry Won by Gerhard Ertl

Gerhard Ertl of Germany won the 2007 Nobel Prize in chemistry for studies of chemical reactions on solid surfaces. His research has helped explain how fuel cells work, how catalytic converters clean up car exhaust and why iron rusts.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you're driving to work this morning, let's invite you to pause for a moment to consider the chemistry that is happening right inside your car's exhaust system. A device called a catalytic converter is taking some of the most dangerous chemicals in the car's exhaust and converting them almost magically to something a little bit safer, like carbon dioxide. That kind of chemistry has now won a German researcher the most prestigious prize in science. This morning the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences gave the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Gerhard Ertl.

NPR's science correspondent Dan Charles is here to talk about that prize.

Dan, good morning.

DAN CHARLES: Nice to be here.

INSKEEP: So what's this man have to do with my car?

CHARLES: Well, what he did is studied some chemical reactions that turned out to be very, very important in a lot of different ways. They happen on solid surfaces. The reactions don't happen normally, but you - if you put the chemicals together in the presence of a catalyst, in many cases, suddenly things start happening that don't otherwise happen. For instance, there's the catalytic converter, but also remember the ozone hole?

INSKEEP: You're talking about the ozone layer that surrounds the Earth.

CHARLES: Yeah.

INSKEEP: It's now getting - the hole in that is getting larger and larger in some place.

CHARLES: Well, yeah and it was.

And that's what's happening because chlorine was reacting with ozone on the surface of ice crystals. Otherwise without the ice crystals, it didn't happen. Or for that matter, rust on iron surface. Anyway, so this researcher basically studied in great detail what really happens on the - in those reactions.

INSKEEP: So he's figuring out natural processes like the hole in the ozone layer and how they work, how they happen. Can I just ask, having to do with that catalytic converter, is he the guy who actually made the catalytic converter possible in the first place or just explained how it worked after it was invented?

CHARLES: It was more explaining how it worked after things like the catalytic converter were inverted. In fact, there's an interesting thing here. It's kind of a throwback, this prize, because Professor Ertl works at an institute called the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin.

Fritz Haber got the Nobel Prize all the way back in 1918 for a reaction which takes nitrogen from the air and basically splits apart this nitrogen bond and lets it combine with hydrogen and it forms ammonia, which is the starting point for some incredibly important chemistry in the world today.

Ertl started his career almost a century later by studying exactly how that reaction happened using very fine detail, you know, sort of modern techniques of vacuum and microscopy, figuring out, not just by trial and error, which is how industry typically worked with these magical catalytic reactions, but by looking at the atoms and trying to figure out what really makes it happen.

INSKEEP: In the years in between, a lot of chemistry had focused on basically human beings, what happens on our bodies, and this is a guy looking at natural processes instead, or outside the body.

CHARLES: Especially in recent years. I mean, if you look at the chemical - the chemistry prizes of the last decade, most of them have been biochemistry, the, you know, the chemistry of the molecules inside our body. With this year, the committee, the Nobel Committee sort of went back into history and went back to sort of more classical chemistry.

INSKEEP: And now he has an opportunity, Professor Ertl has an opportunity if he wishes to study the chemistry on the surfaces of dollar bills.

CHARLES: His prize is worth a million and a half dollars and he won it alone. So he gets to keep all of it.

INSKEEP: Lot of European scientists doing pretty well this year.

CHARLES: This is been a very good year for Europe. Nation scientific communities tend to keep score of their - with their Nobel Prizes, who's been doing well, who's kind of - it's a sign of who's on the cutting edge. Of the five Nobel winners in the natural sciences this year, all five were born in Europe. Three of them still work there, two now live in United States.

INSKEEP: Dan, thanks very much.

CHARLES: Nice to be here.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's science correspondent Dan Charles talking with us this morning when we've learned that the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry is Gerhard Ertl.

By the way, today is his birthday. And he told the Associated Press this prize is the best birthday present that you can give to somebody.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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