Gerhard Ertl (born 10 October 1936) is a German physicist and a Professor emeritus at the Department of Physical Chemistry, Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Berlin, Germany. Ertl’s research laid the foundation of modern surface chemistry, which has helped explain how fuel cells produce energy without pollution, how catalytic converters clean up car exhausts and even why iron rusts, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
His work has paved the way for development of cleaner energy sources and will guide the development of fuel cells, said Astrid Graslund, secretary of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
He was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces. The Nobel academy said Ertl provided a detailed description of how chemical reactions take place on surfaces. His findings applied in both academic studies and industrial development, the academy said. “Surface chemistry can even explain the destruction of the ozone layer, as vital steps in the reaction actually take place on the surfaces of small crystals of ice in the stratosphere,” the award citation reads.
Ertl was born in Stuttgart, Germany, where he studied physics from 1955 to 1957 at the Technical University of Stuttgart and then at the University of Paris (1957–1958) and Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich (1958–1959). He completed his Diploma in Physics at the Technical University of Stuttgart in 1961, followed his thesis advisor Heinz Gerischer from the Max Planck Institute for Metals Research in Stuttgart to Munich and received his Ph.D. degree from the Technical University of Munich in 1965.
After completing his PhD, he became an assistant and lecturer at Technical University of Munich (1965–1968). From 1968 to 1973, he was Professor and Director at Technical University of Hannover. Then, he became a Professor at Institute for Physical Chemistry, Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich (1973–1986). During the 1970s and 80s, he was also a Visiting Professor at the California Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and the University of California, Berkeley. In 1986 he became professor at the Free University of Berlin and at the Technical University of Berlin. He was director at the Fritz Haber Institute of the MPG from 1986 till his retirement in 2004. He became professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1996. Ertl now serves in his second term as a member of the university council of Technische Universität Darmstadt.
Gerhard Ertl is known for determining the detailed molecular mechanisms of the catalytic synthesis of ammonia over iron (Haber Bosch process) and the catalytic oxidation of carbon monoxide over platinum (catalytic converter). During his research he discovered the important phenomenon of oscillatory reactions on platinum surfaces and, using photoelectron microscopy, was able to image for the first time, the oscillating changes in surface structure and coverage that occur during reaction.
He always used new observation techniques like low-energy electron diffraction (LEED) at the beginning of his career, later ultraviolet photoelectron spectroscopy (UPS) and scanning tunneling microscope (STM) yielding ground breaking results. He won the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 1998 along with Gabor A. Somorjai of the University of California, Berkeley for "their outstanding contributions to the field of the surface science in general and for their elucidation of fundamental mechanisms of heterogeneous catalytic reactions at single crystal surface in particular."
Gerhard Ertl was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces. The award, worth SEK 10 million (US$1.7 million, GB£1.15 million), was announced on Ertl's 71st birthday. "I am speechless", Ertl told Associated Press from his office in Berlin. "I was not counting on this."
Ertl and his wife Barbara have two children and several grandchildren. His hobbies include playing the piano and also playing with his cats when he is not doing experiments. He is a Christian.
Ertl is one of the editors of the Handbook of Heterogeneous Catalysis.
Ertl is the co-editor of Engineering Of Chemical Complexity. 2013, World Scientific Publishing. (ISBN 9789814390453)