Somorjai named 23rd UC University Professor

By Yvette Subramanian, College of Chemistry


Gabor Somorjai
Photo courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

17 April 2002 | Gabor Somorjai, professor of chemistry, has made a career out of studying the surfaces of both everyday and exotic materials. As the UC’s newest University Professor, he will travel to other UC campuses, sharing the news that to find fascinating chemistry, you don’t need to look below the surface.

Regarded by his peers as the father of modern surface chemistry, Somorjai is the 23rd individual in the UC system to be honored with this prestigious title and the tenth from the Berkeley campus.

The University Professor title is reserved for scholars of international distinction who are respected teachers as well. News of the honor reached him on a weekend.

“I received a ordinary envelope from the Office of the President on a Saturday,” Somorjai says. “I knew that I had been nominated, but the actual appointment came out of the blue. I feel very honored. I had a bottle of champagne with my wife to celebrate.”

Born in Hungary in 1935, Somorjai was a chemical engineering student at Budapest’s Technical University when the Hungarian Revolution began in 1956. He immigrated to the United States, enrolling in graduate school at Berkeley along with some 50 others from his country. After receiving his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1960, he joined IBM’s research staff in Yorktown Heights, NY, where he worked until he returned to Berkeley as an assistant professor in 1964.

Chemistry of surfaces
Professor Somorjai has spent almost four decades researching the chemistry of surfaces. Even though surfaces are literally everywhere, there was not much scientific data on their structure, composition or reactivity on a molecular level when Somorjai began studying them.

The sheer volume of surfaces available to study meant he had to choose his projects carefully. His approach was to work with simple surfaces and discover how chemical reactions occur on them. He could then apply new techniqes and instrumentation, and extrapolate his findings to more complex surfaces, such as those used in industrial reactions.

Somorjai discovered that atoms on a crystal surface rearrange into geometries that are different from that found in the bulk of the material, and that this occurs in such diverse substances as platinum, gold, ice and sodium chloride.

“We found that rough surfaces do a lot of chemistry and that chemical reactions take place at surface defects,” he says. He also found that a metal’s reactivity correlates with the mobility of its surface atoms. “Surfaces are flexible in their activity,” says Somorjai. “The same surface can catalyze different reactions depending on the chemicals that are added.”

His current research projects include studies on friction, or tribology. As devices shrink down to the nanoscale, friction and the associated heating becomes a significant problem. “We are still learning how ice is slippery and how concrete is not,” he notes.

He also studies properties of polymer surfaces. “Surface science has moved from physics to chemistry in the past 25 years, overlapping my scientific career, he says. “The field is now moving into biology and we now study polymer-liquid interfaces on the molecular level. After all, the human body is really a walking biopolymer-liquid interface system.”

Mentor to many
Through his research, Somorjai has educated a generation of leading scientists. Out of more than 110 Ph.D. students and 150 postdoctoral fellows he has mentored, 60 hold faculty positions.

Somorjai is the author of more than 850 scientific papers and three textbooks. Highly decorated for his research innovations, he has received numerous honorary doctorates from universities worldwide. In 1998 he received the Wolf Prize in Chemistry. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983.

In addition to his position in the chemistry department, he is a senior scientist at the Center for Advanced Materials at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

The UC regents appointed Somorjai as University Professor at their March meeting. In this capacity, he will share his talents with all the campuses within the UC system for up to ten years.


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Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
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