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Gabor A. Somorjai Award For Creative Research In Catalysis

Sponsored by the Gabor A. & Judith K. Somorjai Endowment Fund

by William G. Schulz
February 1, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 5

Credit: Courtesy of Robert Madix
Credit: Courtesy of Robert Madix

For the past four decades, Robert J. 
Madix’ pioneering fundamental research has established the molecular foundation for elementary surface reactions on single-crystal catalytic metals. According to one colleague, “The work of Professor Madix has produced a paradigm shift in the fundamental analysis of many catalytic reactions and, indeed, of the concept of active sites on metal surfaces.”

In the 1970s, Madix, still in his early 30s, was the first surface scientist to undertake cutting-edge research on the surface chemistry of complex molecules on well-defined metallic surfaces. By innovative experimental design, using isotopically labeled molecules, he determined for the first time surface reaction mechanisms, identified the surface reaction intermediates, and quantified their reaction kinetics on metallic single crystals.

The first application of surface science studies to heterogeneous catalysis was achieved by Madix in the seminal studies of methanol oxidation to formaldehyde over Cu(110) and Ag(110) surfaces. The mechanism of this important commercial reaction was misunderstood for 100 years before the elegant fundamental studies by Madix. The new surface reaction mechanistic insights from these surface science studies fundamentally changed industry’s approach to this catalytic reaction, leading to improvements in productivity in the oxidation of methanol as well as higher alcohols.

A former student notes, “In addition to impacting the heterogeneous catalysis community and catalysis industry, these seminal studies also significantly influenced the surface science community in subsequent years.” Madix was quick to apply spectroscopic techniques to verify the identity of the surface reaction intermediates on catalytic single crystals. As more advanced molecular-level surface spectroscopic techniques became available, the surface science community turned to the well-defined surface intermediates synthesized and identified by Madix with these new spectroscopic methods. His publications on surface reactions on single crystals are among the most cited in the surface science literature.

In addition to developing temperature-programmed methods for surface reaction studies, Madix also pioneered time-resolved molecular beam spectroscopy for the study of surface reactivity and the dynamics of adsorption of molecules on metallic surfaces. These studies provided additional fundamental insight into the kinetics and mechanisms of surface reactions. The combination of the temperature-programmed and molecular beam studies provides complete understanding of surface reactivity from the initial adsorption step through complex multistep reactions.

Madix, 71, is the Charles Lee Powell Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineering at Stanford University and senior research fellow in the School of Applied Science & Engineering at Harvard University. He received a B.S. degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois (1961) and a Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley (1964).

He was an Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist awardee in Germany (1978, 2007) and received the Paul Emmet Award for Fundamental Studies in Heterogenous Catalysis (1984), the Alpha Chi Sigma Award for Fundamental Research from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (1990), the Arthur Adamson Award of ACS (1997), and the Henry J. Albert Award of the International Institute of Precious Metals (1997).

Madix will present the award address before the Division of Catalysis Science & Technology (Probationary).


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