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The Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Gerhard Ertl - Important experiments conducted at LMU in Munich

Munich, 10/12/2007

Gerhard Ertl, professor emeritus at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin, has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in surface chemistry. His work focused mainly on chemical reactions between gases and the surfaces of solids that form the basis of catalytic processes. The specific property of a catalyst is to enable or enhance a desired chemical reaction that would otherwise not take place, or occur too slowly. Between 1973 and 1986, Ertl worked at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich, where he conducted or began conducting parts of his pioneering research which has won him this prestigious award. The elucidation of the molecular details of the Haber-Bosch process is but one example. This technique yields ammonia from a mixture of hydrogen and nitrogen gas. The Haber-Bosch process has been supplying farmers around the world with nitrogen-rich fertilizers for almost a century – but only Gerhard Ertl managed to show in detail how the underlying chemical reactions work.

The Haber-Bosch process was developed prior to World War I by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, each of whom has independently been awarded a Nobel Prize. In this process, nitrogen molecules react with hydrogen molecules to form ammonia. The commonly used catalyst contains iron. One question about this reaction was especially controversial: How could a nitrogen molecule be split into its two atoms when these atoms are held together by one of the strongest bonds known? During his time at LMU Munich, Gerhard Ertl proved not only that the nitrogen molecule can indeed be split, but he also established how the entire reaction mechanism worked in molecular detail. Then he turned his attention to another “classical” problem in catalysis: The oxidation of carbon monoxide on platinum surfaces. Since this reaction can display oscillations, the crucial question was: What is the molecular mechanism behind this non-linear behaviour? During his time at LMU Munich, Ertl began to study this phenomenon, the causes of which he was later able to demonstrate.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences states that Gerhard Ertl is being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because he “has founded an experimental school of thought by showing how reliable results can be attained in this difficult area of research. His insights have provided the scientific basis of modern surface chemistry: his methodology is used in both academic research and the industrial development of chemical processes. The approach developed by Ertl is based not least on his studies of the Haber-Bosch process, in which nitrogen is extracted from the air for inclusion in artificial fertilizers. This reaction, which functions using an iron surface as catalyst, has enormous economic significance because the availability of nitrogen for growing plants is often restricted. Ertl has also studied the oxidation of carbon monoxide on platinum, a reaction that takes place in the catalyst of cars to clean exhaust emissions.”

The Nobel prizes will be handed out by King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, 2007.

Professor Dr. Christoph Bräuchle
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at LMU Munich
Tel.: +49-89-2180-77549
Fax: +49-89-2180-77550

Professor Dr. Joost Wintterlin
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at LMU Munich
Tel.: +49-89-2180-775606