Gabor A. Somorjai (born May 4, 1935 in Budapest, Hungary) is currently a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and is a leading researcher in the field of surface chemistry. Somorjai won the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 1998 for his contributions to the field and was awarded a National Medal of Science in 2002. He is also the 2008 winner of the Priestley Medal.
Somorjai was born in Budapest in 1935 to Jewish parents. He was saved from the Nazis when his mother sought the assistance of Raoul Wallenberg in 1944 who issued Swedish passports to Somorjai's mother, himself and his sister saving them from the Nazi death camps. While Somorjai's father ended up in the camp system, he was fortunate to survive but many of Somorjai's extended family ended up in the camp system.
He was studying chemical engineering at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics in 1956. As a participant in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Somorjai left Hungary to go to the US after the Soviet invasion. Along with other Hungarian immigrants, Somorjai enrolled in post-graduate study at Berkeley and obtained his doctorate in 1960. He joined IBM's research staff in Yorktown Heights, New York for a few years but returned to Berkeley as an assistant professor in 1964.
The introduction of new technology such as low-energy electron diffraction revolutionised the study of surfaces in the 1950s and 1960's. However, as these techniques needed high vacuum, studies were limited to surfaces such as silicon, important for its electrical properties. In contrast, Somorjai was interested in surfaces such as platinum known for its chemical properties.
Somorjai discovered that the defects on surfaces is where catalytic reactions take place. When these defects break, new bonds are formed between atoms leading to complex organic compounds such as naphtha to be converted into gasoline as an example. These findings led to greater understanding of subjects such as adhesion, lubrication, friction and absorption. His research also has important implications such as nanotechnology.
In the 1990s, Somorjai started working with physicist Ron Shen on developing a technique such as Sum Frequency Generation Spectroscopy to study surface reactions without the need for a vacuum chamber. He is also studying surface reactions in nanotechnology at the atomic and molecular level using an atomic force microscope.
Somorjai's expertise in surfaces was used as a consultant to the 2002 Winter Olympics where he gave advice on how to make ice-skating surfaces as fast as possible. Somorjai's research had shed new light on ice, demonstrating that skaters skated on vibrating molecules rather than water on top of the ice acting as a lubricant.
During his career, Somorjai has published over 1000 papers and three textbooks on surface chemistry and heterogeneous catalysis. He is now the most-often cited person in the fields of surface chemistry and catalysis.
Somorjai was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983. He was awarded the Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry in 1998 for his contribution to chemistry, sharing the honor with Professor Gerhard Ertl of the Fritz-Haber Institute in Berlin. Somorjai was awarded the National Medal of Science for his contribution as a chemist in 2002. The American Chemical Society has also awarded him the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry and the Adamson Award in Surface Chemistry. In 2002, he was awarded the status of University Professor across the University of California network, an honour he shares with two dozen other academics. In 2008 he received the Priestley Medal, the highest award of the American Chemical Society, for his "extraordinarily creative and original contributions to surface science and catalysis". No one understands why the Nobel Prize committee passed him over, awarding the prize for surface-chemistry to Gerhard Ertl alone in 2007. Ertl himself has expressed surprise about this.
1. ^ Jacoby, Mitch (June 11, 2007). "Somorjai is Priestley Medalist". Chemical and Engineering News (American Chemical Society) 85 (24): 12. http://pubs.acs.org/cen/news/85/i24/8524news4.html. Retrieved 2007-06-20.
* Berkeley Campus News article on Somorjai
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