Friday, July 9, 2010

Gerhard Ertl: a Tradition of Nobel on Catalysis, a Classic of Future

Exactly one hundred years ago the chemist Wilhelm Ostwald received the Nobel prize for his work on the topic of catalysis. And as we see today his research work have really been pathbreaking: Without catalysts modern chemistry would not be possible. It is only logical, that catalysis also plays a major role in this year's Nobel Laureates Meeting.

The start of 2009 Lindau Meeting was made the sole winner of 2007: Gerhard Ertl. With Him, the organizers have taken in my opinion a good choice for the opening of the lecture series, he is in the tradition of a number of Nobel Prize winners: Wilhelm Ostwald (1909), Fritz Haber (1918) and Carl Bosch (1931).

And so he presented himself well. "From atoms to complexity - reactions on surfaces" will be the title of his speech, focusing the exciting effects that happen when solids are coated with gossamer surfaces (that work as catalyst). First, he paid tribute to the foundations that had been created for the Ostwald catalysis sensitize the public then for the topic of nitrogen fixation. Accordingly threatened at the beginning of the 20th Century, a shortage of nitrogenous fertilizers, since natural resources) (eg, cow manure can not be arbitrarily increased. A solution of the problem was indeed ubiquitous, because nitrogen is a major component of air (80%), but the crux of the story is that nitrogen is chemically hardly reactive. One has only to overcome this inertia and fix nitrogen in a more accessible form, such as ammonia.

Here Ertl brings into play the catalysts that Haber has discovered 100 years ago fairly accurately for the reaction between nitrogen and hydrogen. They facilitate the synthesis of ammonia and were used by Bosch in 1910 in an industrial process, the Haber-Bosch process. Every chemistry student knows exactly, but the exact mechanism at the molecular level has been elucidated until much later, by Gerhard Ertl. That He was eventually thanked the Nobel Prize. In principle, the gas molecules interact (nitrogen and hydrogen) with the catalyst surface and thus can be easily divided and recombined. Before he goes into detail, says the winner but it was "too complicated" for his listeners and moves to another popular application of catalysts, the car.

Here the same principles apply, only the gases that are raising awareness of other Ertl: Carbon monoxide and oxygen. With the help of modern physical methods, it was possible for him to observe the motion of atoms on the surface, or map the concentration profile of certain gases in real time. He shows videos with beautiful circles and spirals, which (similar are the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction) is a result of oscillatory processes, and reveal a mysterious order of the microcosm. His comparisons with paintings by Paul Klee and Van Gogh are not far-fetched. Ertl concluded by demonstrating turbulence resulting from chemical waves. At this point, he said, we have progressed from atoms to complexity, requiring a different kind of understanding. At the end he gives us a little philosophy on the way: "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

At the evening informal discussion session, he also told a story, and we learned that he really is a physicist and he was done by his mentor at the interface between gas and solid attention as a research topic. As the first steps were not very successful, he draws into serious consideration the science of the nail to hang, but his wife said he should remain scientists. A year later he became a professor.

He encouraged us young scientists to follow several of curiosity, even with the risk of failure. It is the privilege of a researcher to be allowed to make mistakes. One should not believe what others say, just as new can be explored.

The development of chemistry is his opinion, to more complex systems, such as living organisms, and away from chemical equilibrium. To describe these states to be especially advanced mathematical skills are required. Thus were the chemists of the future mathematician or a physicist. Note: This says a physicist!

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