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UC Berkeley Press Release

Chemist Gabor Somorjai to receive Priestley Medal

– The American Chemical Society announced last week that it will bestow its highest honor, the Priestley Medal, on Gabor A. Somorjai, University Professor and professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, for his "extraordinarily creative and original contributions to surface science and catalysis."

The annual award will be presented at the society's spring 2008 national meeting.

Gabor Somorjai
Gabor Somorjai

"I am delighted to receive this prestigious award, following in the footsteps of several distinguished faculty members from our chemistry department," said Somorjai. "It honors pioneering research in surface chemistry and heterogeneous catalysis by our 40 years of research with more than 300 outstanding Berkeley graduate students and postdoctoral fellows."

"Professor Somorjai could be considered the father of modern surface chemistry and to have almost single-handedly set the molecular foundations of heterogeneous catalysis," said Francisco Zaera, a chemistry professor at UC Riverside. Zaera, who conducted his doctoral research with Somorjai in the early 1980s, noted that Somorjai's contributions are far-reaching, but have made an especially strong impact on hydrogenation, hydrocarbon conversion, polymerization, ammonia synthesis, and syngas processes.

Somorjai was born in Budapest, Hungary, on May 4, l935. He was a fourth-year student of chemical engineering at Technical University in Budapest in l956 at the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution. He left Hungary and emigrated to the United States, where he received his Ph.D. degree in chemistry from UC Berkeley in l960. He became a U.S. citizen in l962.

After graduation, he joined the IBM research staff in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., where he remained until l964. At that time, he was appointed assistant professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley. In 1972, he was promoted to professor. Concurrent with his faculty appointment, he is also a faculty senior scientist in the Materials Sciences Division of the College of Engineering, and group leader of the Surface Science and Catalysis Program at the Center for Advanced Materials at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Somorjai has trained and mentored more than 300 Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows, published more than 1,000 peer-reviewed journal articles, and has written three textbooks. His recent honors include the 2007 Langmuir Prize from the American Physical Society, the 2006 Remsen Award from the Maryland Section of the American Chemical Society, and the 2002 National Medal of Science.

The Priestley Medal is named in honor of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), who is best known for the discovery of oxygen. Like Somorjai, Priestley fled his homeland to avoid political persecution and emigrated to the United States, where he made many vital contributions to the science of chemistry.