Happy Birthday, here's your Nobel Prize

Gerhard Ertl of Germany won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry on Wednesday, his 71st birthday, for pioneering work in surface chemistry that has become invaluable to industry, from fertilizers to cleaner cars.

“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,” the jury said in its citation.

Ertl’s achievement was to build a step-by-step method to progressively build up a complete picture of a chemical reaction on a surface.

These experiments are high-ticket affairs, as they require a laboratory that is utterly free of contamination and able to apply individual layers of atoms and molecules to a pure surface.

Ertl is a professor emeritus at Berlin’s Fritz Haber Institute, which is part of the Max Planck Society.

The Nobel committee lauded him as a forerunner in surface chemistry, a branch that evolved in the 1960s, and one of the first to understand the potential of modern technology for exploring the new field.

“Ertl has succeeded in providing a detailed description of how chemical reactions take place on surfaces and has in this way laid the foundation of modern surface chemistry,” it said.

The science can also explain why the ozone layer is deteriorating, through chemical reactions on the surfaces of ice crystals in the stratosphere.

Knowledge about chemical reactions on surfaces will also help scientists produce renewable fuels more efficiently and create new materials for electronics, the jury added.

Last year Roger Kornberg of the United States won the prize for work on a key process of life called genetic transcription, a process vital for coaxing stem cells into different kinds of specific cells, sparking hope that scientists will one day be able to grow transplant tissue in a lab.

The 2007 laureate receives a gold medal, a diploma and 10-million Swedish kronor ($1,53-million).

The formal prize ceremony will be held as tradition dictates on December 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of the prize’s creator, Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite Alfred Nobel.

The prizes were first awarded in 1901.

On Monday, the Nobel Medicine Prize went to Mario Capecchi and Oliver Smithies of the United States and Martin Evans of Britain for their work in creating “knockout mice”, or genetically manipulated mice that replicate human disease.

The physics prize was on Tuesday awarded to Albert Fert of France and Peter Gruenberg of Germany for pioneering work that led to the miniaturised hard disk, one of the breakthroughs of modern information technology.

The literature prize will be awarded on Thursday and the prestigious peace prize on Friday.

The economics prize will wrap up this year’s Nobel season on Monday.—AFP

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