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June 7, 2007

Gabor Somorjai Wins Priestley Award

BERKELEY, CA —Gabor Somorjai, 72, a chemist who holds joint appointments with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California at Berkeley, has been awarded the 2008 Priestley Medal, the highest honor of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Somorjai becomes the sixth Berkeley Lab scientist to win the award, which is named for Joseph Priestley, who reported the discovery of oxygen in 1774.

Gabor Somorjai spacer image
Gabor Somorjai (photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab Creative Services Office).

Somorjai is receiving his award, which will be presented at the spring 2008 ACS national meeting, "for extraordinarily creative and original contributions to surface science and catalysis." Widely recognized by his peers as the father of modern surface science, he has authored more than 1,000 scientific papers and three textbooks on surface chemistry and heterogeneous catalysis, and has mentored more than 300 Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows.

"A society's standard of living can be measured by its knowledge of industrial catalysis," Somorjai once said, referring to the fact that nearly all manufacturing processes involving chemistry start with a catalytic reaction between the surfaces of two materials. When Somorjai began his career, scientific data on the structure, composition and reactivity of surfaces, especially at the critical molecular level, was scarce. According to at least one peer, he almost single-handedly established the molecular foundations of surface catalysis.

"Over the years, we developed a large number of techniques and instrumentation to study reactions at the molecular level on single crystal surfaces," he has said, in explaining his unique approach of working with simple surfaces to discover how chemical reactions occur on them,  then extrapolating the results to the more complex surfaces used in industrial reactions. Somorjai's approach has led to a far better understanding of catalysis and other important surface interactions such as adhesion, lubrication, friction, and adsorption. He is the chemist most often cited in the fields of surface chemistry and catalysis.

Most recently, Somorjai has been at the forefront of nanoscience, studying catalytic reactions on the surfaces of nanoparticles to create prototypes for future high-tech catalysts.

"All catalysts are nanoparticles – clusters of atoms that do all the chemistry – but the question is why doesn't nature use different particles?” he has said. “The reason is that, as you do chemistry, the surface restructures continuously to adapt to the chemistry that occurs, to optimize bonding. This restructuring is much easier with little clusters, where you have only a small number of nearest neighbors to move, than with a big single crystal, where you have too many neighbors and it's too difficult to weaken bonding. Thus, nature loves clusters to do chemistry."

Somorjai was born in Budapest, Hungary, and was a fourth-year chemical engineering student at the Technical University in 1956 when the ill-fated Hungarian uprising against the ruling Communist regime erupted. A member of the defeated freedom fighters, he became part of a wave of Hungarian students that emigrated to the United States in 1957. Somorjai enrolled in the graduate school at UC Berkeley and went on to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1960. He became a U.S. citizen in 1962 in the midst of a four-year stint with the IBM research staff at Yorktown Heights, New York. In 1964 he returned to Berkeley as an assistant professor.

Priestly medal
The Priestley Medal is the American Chemical Society's highest honor.

Somorjai has won just about every honor a scientist can receive. In 2002, he received the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest award for lifetime achievement in fields of scientific research. Earlier this year, he won the Irving Langmuir Prize in Chemical Physics from the American Physical Society. Other prestigious recognitions include the Wolf Foundation Prize in chemistry and, from the ACS, the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry and the Adamson Award in Surface Chemistry. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983. He has also been recognized as an educational leader. In 2002, he was named a University Professor by the UC Board of Regents.

Other Berkeley Lab scientists who won the Priestly Award were Darleane Hoffman (2000), George Pimentel (1989), Melvin Calvin (1978), Glenn Seaborg (1979) and Kenneth Pitzer (1969).

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