Gerhard Ertl turned 71 today. Unfortunately, 71 doesn't typically carry the same cache as some other ages, like 16 (driving a car, at least in the U.S.), 18 (can vote here, can drink pretty much everywhere else), 25 (no more rental car penalties), 50 (AARP card!) and all the other multiples of ten, which ring in new decades. But, I have a hunch Ertl's going to remember good ol', unremarkable 71 for a while. After all, it's the day he won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. And not just that, he won it alone. Which means the 1.54 million is all his (no sharing required). Ertl is the new, worldwide face for modern-day surface chemistry. Prior, his fame was confined to the scientific community alone; but now, when Paris Hilton, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or even a no-name peon like myself fire up a car, we'll think or Ertl. Catalytic surfaces stoke reactions that underpin many of the innovations we rely on today, from artificial fertilizers to catalytic converters to fuel cells. This type of reaction can also be thorn in our side: creating the rust appearing on our bikes and the thinning of the ozone layer, which actually takes places when freon molecules mingle with ice crystals in the stratosphere. Via a series of papers, Ertl, a physical chemistry professor at the Fritz Haber Institute (part of the Max Planck Society), won acclaim for investigating the surface reaction that shares a moniker with his institute's namesake: the Haber-Bosch process. In this reaction, nitrogen gas molecules are converted to ammonia for artificial fertilizers to increase crop yields. Using photoelectron microscopy, Ertl thoroughly elucidated the choreography and the energies involved in the atomic interactions between nitrogen, hydrogen and an iron surface. These insights allowed industrial operations to make the process more efficient. According to a Bloomberg News report, "The method now produces about 100 million tons of fertilizer a year. One percent of the world's annual energy supply is consumed in the Haber-Bosch process. Last year, Germany's BASF AG paid $5 billion to acquire Engelhard Corp. to expand its offering of catalysts." Ertl performed similar detailed assessments of the conversion of carbon monoxide and other emission products from combustion to carbon dioxide, nitrogen gas and water via a platinum catalyst. These reactions take place in a car's catalytic converter. "Research in surface chemistry already has underpinned innovations ranging from air pollution control technology to modern electronics products," said the American Chemical Society's President Katie Hunt in a statement to the media. "In the future, this research will help us tap new sources of renewable fuels, for instance, and produce smaller, more powerful electronics products." (Here's a video that explains why the Swedish Royal Society found Ertl deserving.) So, it ain't sexy--like an iPod hard drive--but it's essential. If not for Ertl's indelible mark, we'd be battling both climate change and passing monsoons of acid rain. And for that (not to mention, the better crop yields), he deserves at least a million and a half. (Hell, Alex Rodriguez hits a ball with a bat and is worth more than 250 times that, at least to his agent.) Happy Birthday, Gerhard, you Nobelist, you.
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