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Somorjai Is Named 2008 Priestley Medalist

ACS recognizes UC Berkeley professor for contributions to surface science and catalysis

by Mitch Jacoby
June 11, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 24

Somorjai's group
Credit: Courtesy of Gabor Somorjai
used electron-beam lithography to prepare these 50-nm-tall platinum particles on silica for surface studies.
Credit: Courtesy of Gabor Somorjai
used electron-beam lithography to prepare these 50-nm-tall platinum particles on silica for surface studies.

"For extraordinarily creative and original contributions to surface science and catalysis," the American Chemical Society will bestow its highest honor, the Priestley Medal, on Gabor A. Somorjai, University Professor and professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. The annual award, to be presented at the spring 2008 ACS national meeting, recognizes distinguished service to the field of chemistry.

Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN
Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN

"I am delighted to have been selected for this prestigious award," Somorjai says. "It's a great honor."

For some 50 years, Somorjai has probed the structure and properties of solid surfaces and used the information to build a molecular-level understanding of surface-mediated chemical reactivity. By revealing subtle-and sometimes not-so-subtle-differences between the crystal faces of a given material, the surface science methods that Somorjai has developed have been valuable for elucidating chemical reaction pathways in heterogeneous (surface) catalysis.

Those methods have led to more efficient and more selective catalysts and have been a key driving force in the advancement of microelectronics, data storage technologies, and a variety of other disparate areas.

Catalysis and surface science have played important roles in addressing some of the top technical challenges facing the world, and they are poised to continue to do so, Somorjai says. For example, by uncovering the molecular basis of the unique surface properties of nanoparticles and other reactive materials, surface science stands to contribute to the development of novel coatings and thin films for use in photovoltaics, electrochemistry, and other energy-conversion technologies.

Similarly, atomic-scale information of that type guides manufacturers in designing "green" catalysts that selectively yield desired products while minimizing the generation of waste by-products.

Forty years ago, Somorjai and coworkers began developing laboratory vacuum systems for examining the surface properties of model catalytic materials, such as platinum single crystals. The apparatus enabled them, for example, to compare surface diffraction patterns recorded before and after a crystal was exposed to reactive gases. That work demonstrated that surfaces can undergo atomic restructuring in response to gas exposure and pointed to the importance of crystal defects in mediating reactions.

More recently, Somorjai's group developed scanning tunneling microscopy methods, vibrational spectroscopy techniques, and other procedures for probing reaction dynamics at buried interfaces and on high-surface-area materials under conditions of high pressure and temperature.

"Professor Somorjai could be considered the father of modern surface chemistry and to have almost single-handedly set the molecular foundations of heterogeneous catalysis," says Francisco Zaera, a chemistry professor at UC Riverside. Zaera conducted his doctoral research with Somorjai in the early 1980s. He notes that Somorjai's contributions are far-reaching and have been especially influential in hydrogenation chemistry, hydrocarbon conversion, polymerization, ammonia synthesis, and syngas processes.

Somorjai completed his undergraduate education in chemical engineering in 1956 at the Technical University of Budapest and graduated with a Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Berkeley in 1960. Following a research appointment at IBM, he began his academic career at UC Berkeley in 1964, where he has been a professor for more than four decades.

During that period, Somorjai has trained and mentored more than 300 Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows, has published more than 1,000 peer-reviewed journal articles, and has written three textbooks on surface chemistry.


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