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Gabor Somorjai, an expert on surface chemistry, named prestigious University Professor of the University of California
15 April 2002

By Yvette Subramanian, College of Chemistry

Berkeley - Gabor Somorjai, professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, has made a career out of studying the surfaces of both everyday and exotic materials. As the University of California's newest University Professor, he will travel to other campuses within the UC system to teach others that you don't need to look below the surface to find fascinating chemistry.


Gabor Somorjai

New University Professor Gabor Somorjai. Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Somorjai, who is regarded by his peers as the father of modern surface chemistry, becomes only the 23rd individual in the UC system to be honored with this prestigious title and the 10th from the UC Berkeley campus. To quote from UC President Richard Atkinson, "The title University Professor is reserved for scholars of international distinction who are recognized and respected teachers with exceptional ability."

This appointment is a way to share their talents with all of the campuses within the UC system and is effective for five to 10 years. He was appointed to this elite academic rank by the UC Regents at their March meeting.

News of the University Professor appointment came to Somorjai on a weekend.

"I received an ordinary envelope from the Office of the President on a Saturday," he said. "I knew that I had been nominated, but the actual appointment came out of the blue. I feel very honored. I had a bottle of champagne with my wife to celebrate."

Born in Hungary in 1935, Somorjai was a fourth-year chemical engineering student at the Technical University in Budapest when the Hungarian Revolution began in 1956. He left Hungary and immigrated to the United States, enrolling in graduate school at UC Berkeley in 1957, along with some 50 other students from Hungary. He received his PhD in 1960 in chemistry and joined the research staff of IBM, in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., where he worked until he returned to UC Berkeley as an assistant professor in 1964.

Somorjai has spent almost 40 years studying the chemistry of surfaces. Even though surfaces are literally everywhere, there was not much scientific data on their structure, composition and reactivity on a molecular level when Somorjai began studying them. The sheer volume of surfaces available to study meant he had to choose his projects carefully. His approach was to work with simple surfaces - those of a single, uniform metal crystal - and discover how chemical reactions occur on them. He could then extrapolate his findings to more complex surfaces like those used in industrial reactions.

"We developed a large number of techniques and instrumentation to study reactions at the molecular level on single crystal surfaces," he said.

He discovered that atoms on a crystal surface rearrange into geometries that are different from those in the bulk of the material and that this occurs in such diverse substances as platinum, gold, ice and sodium chloride.

"We found that rough surfaces do a lot of chemistry and that chemical reactions take place at surface defects, the atomic steps and kinks of a surface," he said. He also found that a metal's reactivity correlates with the mobility of its surface atoms. This is because atoms on the surface of a metal catalyst have to relocate when reacting molecules adsorb onto them. Recognizing this, he looked at the selective adsorption of chemicals on surfaces and how a single crystal surface can catalyze many different reactions.

"Surfaces are flexible in their activity," said Somorjai. "The same surface can catalyze different reactions depending on the chemicals that are added."

Some of his current research projects include studies of friction. As devices shrink down to the nanoscale, friction and associated heating become significant problems. And despite centuries of scientific study, the basics are still poorly understood.

"We are still learning how ice is slippery and how concrete is not," he noted.

He also studies the chemical and mechanical properties of polymer surfaces. "As we understand the structure and bonding of simpler surfaces, we are ready to tackle more complex systems," he said. "Surface science has moved from physics to chemistry in the past 25 years, overlapping my scientific career. The field is now moving into biology and we now study polymer-liquid interfaces on the molecular level. After all, the human body is really a walking biopolymer-liquid interface system."

Through his research, Somorjai has educated a generation of leading scientists. Out of the more than 110 PhD students and 150 postdoctoral fellows he has mentored, 60 hold faculty positions, a fact of which he is very proud.

"The outstanding graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who come to Berkeley tend to be very creative and do high quality research," he said.

Somorjai is the author of more than 850 scientific papers in the fields of surface chemistry and heterogeneous catalysis, and has written three textbooks. He has been highly decorated for his research innovations and has received numerous honorary doctorates from universities worldwide. In 1998, he received the Wolf Prize in Chemistry; he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983.

In addition to his position in the chemistry department, he is a senior scientist of the materials science division and group leader of the surface science and catalysis program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.