Issue Date: March 2, 2009
Arthur W. Adamson Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Surface Chemistry
Sponsored by ACS
Chemistry fans who read about David A. King’s career in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia or his Cambridge University faculty Web page will learn about his accomplishments in science policy and efforts to engage the public in science.
King served as the U.K. government’s chief scientific adviser and head of the Government Office for Science from October 2000 to December 2007. In 2008, he coauthored a book titled “The Hot Topic,” which was written for general audiences and calls for government action on climate change.
But the online biographies say little about King’s award-winning scientific research.
Colleague Michael Bowker, a professor of surface chemistry at Cardiff University, in Wales, credits King’s research group with the “development of ingenious, rigorous instrumental techniques and theoretical/computational methodologies” that elevated the study of the chemistry of solid surfaces to a quantitative footing fit for the 21st century.
King was born in 1939 in Durban, South Africa. He attended Witwaterstrand University, in Johannesburg, and graduated with honors in chemistry. He went on to obtain a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Witwaterstrand and spent three years as a Shell postgraduate scholar at Imperial College London.
Those postgraduate years were just the start of his tour of England’s higher institutes of learning. King got his first teaching position as a lecturer in chemical physics at the University of East Anglia in 1966. From 1974 to 1988, he was a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Liverpool. Since 1998, King has been the 1920 Professor of Physical Chemistry at Cambridge.
According to Bowker, King began his career in surface chemistry research at a time when the field was becoming much more sophisticated. Over the past 40 years, the study of surfaces began to change from a “black art” that qualitatively described complex heterogeneous catalytic processes to a quantitative atomic, molecular, and electronic view aided by new theories and advances in instrumentation.
King’s team led the charge in using new instrumental techniques and theoretical and computational methods to push knowledge past the study of simple surfaces into more complex areas. The molecular beam techniques developed in the early ’70s by King and Michael G. Wells of the University of East Anglia were used to evaluate the kinetics and dynamics of the interactions and reactions of gases with metal surfaces. By 1991, the techniques developed into the first instrument capable of measuring heats of adsorption on single crystal surfaces and allowing researchers to evaluate the final adsorbed state.
Also in the ’70s, King’s group contributed to the development of infrared spectroscopy to characterize single crystal surfaces, a sensitive and powerful tool that is still widely used.
In parallel with his work to develop new instruments for surface chemistry, King developed theoretical models of adatom-adatom lateral interactions and precursor states for adsorption, desorption, diffusion, and reaction.
King’s group made a number of important findings that were key to the discovery of adsorbate-induced surface restructuring, which has been subsequently shown to be a widespread phenomenon. His team also found that the kinetic process driving the structural transition can be strongly nonlinear and showed how it can be implicated in oscillatory catalytic reactions.
More recently, King has studied catalytic reactions of industrial interest, including ethane epoxidation on silver surfaces and the role of nanostructured chiral-oxide supports in catalysis. These studies may lead to a general pathway to the design of new catalysts.
King’s research and work in science policy have brought him many awards and honors. He is a fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry. In 2002, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth of England; in the same year, he received the Royal Society’s Rumford Medal.
King will present the award address before the Division of Physical Chemistry.
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