Berkeley researcher receives national award

March 21, 2000

Reshapes researchers' understanding of surface chemistry

Chemist Gabor A. Somorjai of Berkeley, Calif., will be honored on March 28 by the world's largest scientific society for reshaping researchers' understanding of surface chemistry -- reactions that make computer disk drives, photocopying machines, catalytic converters and myriad other products possible. He will receive the American Chemical Society Award for Creative Research in Homogeneous or Heterogeneous Catalysts at the Society's national meeting in San Francisco.

"Surfaces are important in most processes in life," said Somorjai, a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. "Just look at how plants photosynthesize and how the body regenerates itself. This is in addition to all the technological applications."

The invention of the transistor, a breakthrough for electronics, spurred the study of surfaces in unprecedented detail. The smaller the device, the more the surface determines its properties as a whole.

"If you want to thoroughly understand something, you have to study it thoroughly," he said. "So we started to find out exactly what the structure of surfaces were and where their sites were that participated in reactions."

Somorjai continued, "As a result, a new picture emerged of how and why surfaces work. We realized that surfaces are not rigid, like we thought, but flexible. As molecules bind to a surface and react, they restructure that surface. So surfaces actually adjust to the chemistry as it occurs. That explains why nature uses little clusters, such as enzymes, as catalysts. They're very flexible."

That discovery revolutionized surface science and its array of applications. "Now we're learning how to control the surface structure and composition on an ever finer scale. That means smaller, more complex devices that can do more for us," he said.

Somorjai, who came to the United States from his native Hungary in 1956, said his father encouraged him to consider a more "practical" career than history, his first interest. "Then I got fascinated with polymers - how catalysts assemble their long chains into things like skin," he said. "That led me to surfaces." He would still like to write "a history of the 20th century from the eye of science."

The ACS Award for Creative Research in Homogeneous or Heterogeneous Catalysts is sponsored by Shell Oil Foundation of Houston, Texas.
A nonprofit organization with a membership of 161,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

American Chemical Society

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