NEWS RELEASE, 02/24/98
UC Berkeley chemistry professor to receive Wolf Prize at May 10 ceremony in Jerusalem, Israel
BERKELEY -- Gabor A. Somorjai, one of the pioneers of surface chemistry and a professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley, has been awarded the annual Wolf Prize in Chemistry from the Israel-based Wolf Foundation.
Somorjai, 62, shares the $100,000 award with Gerhard Ertl, 61, of the Fritz-Haber Institute of the Max-Planck Gessellschaft in Berlin. The two independently laid the foundation for the present understanding of chemical reactions at the surface of materials.
The field is of great importance in industry today, in areas ranging from pollution control by catalytic converters to the creation of thin films on computer hard drives. The study of surfaces in general -- their electrical, magnetic and optical as well as chemical properties -- has been pushed greatly by the race to make electronic circuits smaller and smaller, cramming millions of transistors into a dime-sized area.
"This is the first major international award in the field of surface chemistry, and I was very happy to receive it," said Somorjai, who also is a faculty senior scientist in the Materials Sciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Recognition has finally come to the field."
The award, announced last month, will be presented May 10 at the Knesset (parliament) building in Jerusalem by Israeli President Ezer Weizman.
Surfaces are surprisingly important in our lives, Somorjai said, whether it's the surface of our skin or the soles of our shoes. Surfaces may even have been important in the primordial evolution of organic molecules such as DNA and proteins essential to life on Earth.
More practically, the surfaces of metals have long been used to catalyze chemical reactions, such as the cracking of petroleum on platinum surfaces to make gasoline, and more recently the conversion of unburned combustion products from automobile engines into non-polluting gases by catalytic converters.
Despite their ubiquity, surfaces were little studied when Somorjai completed his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley in 1960. His novel idea was to work with simple surfaces -- surfaces of a single, uniform crystal of metal -- to discover how chemical reactions occur there. The findings could then be extrapolated to more complex surfaces like those used in industrial reactions.
"We developed a large number of techniques to study reactions at the molecular level on single crystal surfaces," he said.
What he found is that the atomic cracks, kinks, steps and terraces on the surface are what hold the chemicals as they rearrange. Defects encourage or catalyze reactions on the surface. Recognizing this, he has looked at the selective absorption of chemicals on surfaces and how a single surface can catalyze many different reactions.
"Surfaces can do a lot of chemistry, and they are flexible -- the same surface can catalyze different reactions when you put in different chemicals," he said.
During his nearly 40-year career he has supervised more than 90 Ph.D. students, half of whom are in industry and the other half in academia. Another 110 postdoctoral researchers have worked in his laboratory.
These colleagues and Somorjai too have taken the study of surface reactions to an ever smaller scale, down to the atomic scale achieved by scanning tunneling microscopy and atomic force microscopy.
"To a large extent the advent of surface technologies has led to the ability to manipulate, control and characterize materials on an ever smaller scale -- not just on a two-dimensional surface, but even within the surface," Somorjai said.
Somorjai and his laboratory colleagues now use seven scanning tunneling microscopes to study
surfaces reactions, and are developing new laser techniques that can take snapshots of chemical reactions as they occur, in order to look at the short-lived intermediates. A new area of study involves polymers such as polyethylene. He is interested in how catalysts produce the long polymeric chain and what the arrangement is of the long chain molecules on the polymer's surface.
Somorjai continues to follow his curiosity into new areas, more recently the area of friction or tribology. As devices are made increasingly smaller, friction becomes a significant problem. And despite centuries of scientific study, the basics are still poorly understood.
"I still don't understand how we can walk," Somorjai said.
Born in Budapest, Hungary (5/4/35), he was in his fourth year as a chemical engineering student at the Technical University in Budapest when the Hungarian Revolution broke out in 1956. Three weeks after the Russians invaded, in November, 1956, he fled to the U.S. By February of 1957 he had enrolled in graduate school at UC Berkeley. Berkeley admitted some 50 students from Hungary that year.
After completing his Ph.D. work in chemistry in 1960 he joined the research staff at IBM in New York, where he worked until returning to UC Berkeley as an assistant professor of chemistry in 1964.
The author of more than 700 scientific papers and three textbooks, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He has received various awards for his work, including the Von Hippel Award of the Materials Research Society, the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry from the American Chemical Society and the Chemical Pioneer award of the American Institute of Chemists. He holds three honorary degrees, including one from his alma mater, the Technical University of Budapest, which he left just short of graduation.
Somorjai lives in Berkeley with his wife Judith, and has two children, one of whom also has a Ph.D. in chemistry. He obtained his U.S. citizenship in 1962.
The Wolf Foundation was established by the late Dr. Ricardo Wolf, inventor, diplomat and philanthropist, "to promote science and art for the benefit of mankind." Annual awards of $100,000 each are made in the areas of chemistry, physics, medicine, agriculture, mathematics and the arts.
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