STOCKHOLM (AFP) — Gerhard Ertl of Germany won the Nobel Chemistry Prize on Wednesday, his 71st birthday, for work that has become invaluable to the modern chemical industry and helped fight to fix the ozone hole.
"This science is important for the chemical industry and can help us to understand such varied processes as why iron rusts, how fuel cells function and how the catalysts in our cars work," the jury said in its citation.
It can also explain why Earth's protective ozone layer is damaged through chemical reactions on the surfaces of minute ice crystals in the stratosphere, the panel added.
Ertl is a professor emeritus at Berlin's Fritz Haber Institute, which is part of the Max Planck Society.
The Nobel committee lauded him as a forerunner in surface chemistry, a branch that evolved in the 1960s, and one of the first to understand the potential of modern technology for exploring the new field.
Ertl's achievement was creating a rigorous step-by-step experimental method to build up a complete picture of a chemical reaction on a solid surface.
These experiments are high-ticket affairs, as they require a laboratory that is utterly free of contamination and able to apply individual layers of atoms and molecules to a pure surface to observe each phase of the reaction.
Ertl "laid the methodological foundations for an entire field of research," the citation said.
"The great reliability of Ertl's results is due to the meticulous precision in his work combined with an outstanding capacity to refine problems. He has painstakingly and systematically searched for the best experimental techniques to investigate each separate question."
Ertl said the honour was a once-in-a-lifetime birthday present.
"I was speechless at first when I got the news from Stockholm," he told AFP. "Mainly I feel proud."
"I can't say I expected the prize but I knew I was on the list of candidates," he said.
John Foord, a professor of chemistry at Oxford University, said the modern chemistry industry could not function without catalysts, and surface chemistry itself played a crucial role in that area,
The advent of fuel cells -- a clean substitute to CO2-spewing fossil fuels -- will depend on enhanced catalysts, he noted.
"Given the importance of surface phenomena in modern chemistry and the significant contribution that Professor Ertl has made to understanding it, I would say it was a good award and pleasing to see," Foord told AFP.
He is the second German to win a Nobel prize this year. On Tuesday, Peter Gruenberg shared the physics prize with Albert Fert of France for a discovery that led to the miniaturised hard disk.
Ertl, who has conducted his research in the German cities of Hanover and Munich as well as Berlin, said Germany strongly supported its scientists.
"I cannot understand why you hear so much moaning about a lack of funding," he said, adding that he thought German researchers were better off than their US counterparts.
Last year Roger Kornberg of the United States won the chemistry prize for work on a key process of life called genetic transcription, vital for coaxing stem cells into different kinds of specific cells and sparking hope that scientists will one day be able to grow transplant tissue in a lab.
The 2007 laureate receives a gold medal, a diploma and 10 million Swedish kronor (1.53 million dollars, 1.08 million euros).
The formal prize ceremony will be held as tradition dictates on December 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of the prize's creator, Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite Alfred Nobel.
The prizes were first awarded in 1901.
On Monday, the Nobel Medicine Prize went to Mario Capecchi and Oliver Smithies of the United States and Martin Evans of Britain for their work in creating "knockout mice," or genetically manipulated mice that replicate human disease.
The literature prize will be awarded on Thursday and the prestigious peace prize on Friday.
The economics prize will wrap up this year's Nobel season on Monday.
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