Ertl was a pioneer in surface chemistry as the discipline started to emerge in the early 1960s. He laid the methodological foundations for an entire field of research, according to the academy. Ertl’s work has led to a better understanding of how fuel cells function and how catalytic converters in cars work.
The announcement was made on Ertl’s 71st birthday. The Nobel was “the best present anyone could get,” he told a press conference in Stockholm via telephone link from Germany.
“I was completely speechless. I knew I was a candidate but I was still very, very surprised,” he said.
Neither the money nor the honour would make much of a difference to his life, he said.
“I expect to be able to continue working as normal in the future,” Ertl told the press conference, adding he would celebrate over lunch with his wife and dinner with his family.
The field of surface chemistry can be used to explain the breaking down of the ozone layer and is used in the manufacture of chemical fertilisers. The semiconductor industry is another area dependent on knowledge in surface chemistry.
The approach established by Ertl was based largely on his studies of the Haber-Bosch process, in which nitrogen is extracted from the air for inclusion in artificial fertilizers.
Ertl was born in 1936 in Bad Cannstadt, Germany. He obtained his PhD in physical chemistry in 1965 from Technische Universität in Munich, Germany. He is now Professor Emeritus at Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Berlin.
Each Nobel Prize is worth 10 million kronor.