October 10th is the birthday of Germany’s Gerhard Ertl, who got the best present a scientist can receive—he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Ertl won the chemistry prize for his development of methods for studying how chemical reactions occur on surfaces. Understanding surface chemistry means gaining insights into the details of such fundamental processes as the rusting of iron, the workings of cars’ catalystic converters, the function of fuel cells, and the reactions that produce artificial fertilizers. Surface chemistry even comes into play in studies of the integrity of the ozone layer, because chemical reactions that destroy ozone take place on the surfaces of ice crystals in the stratrosphere.
Ertl developed many of his techniques for studying surface chemistry by investigating the Haber-Bosch reaction. In that reaction, which takes place on a surface of iron, nitrogen is pulled out of the air and combined with hydrogen to form ammonia, for use in fertilizers. The process has been used for a century, but Ertl explained it in detail for the first time. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Ertl’s birthday presents included a lovely walking stick.