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Gabor A. Somorjai

Gábor A. Somorjai
Gabor Somorjai in 2003.
Born (1935-05-04) May 4, 1935 (age 79)
Budapest, Kingdom of Hungary
Nationality American
Alma mater Budapest University of Technology and Economics
Religion Jewish

Gabor A. Somorjai (born May 4, 1935) is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and is a leading researcher in the field of surface chemistry and catalysis. For his contributions to the field, Somorjai won the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 1998, the Linus Pauling Award in 2000, the National Medal of Science in 2002, the Priestley Medal in 2008, and the NAS Award in Chemical Sciences in 2013.

Early history

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.

Chemical research

The introduction of new technology such as low-energy electron diffraction revolutionised the study of surfaces in the 1950s and 1960s. However, early 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 adsorption. His research also has important implications such as nanotechnology.

In the 1990s, Somorjai started working with physicist Y. R. Shen on developing a technique known 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 atomic force microscopy and scanning tunnelling microscopy, both of which can be used without vacuum.

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 more than one thousand 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.

Honours and awards

Somorjai was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979 and the

The Somorjai Award

The Gabor A. Somorjai Award for Creative Research in Catalysis, consisting of US$ 5,000.00 and a certificate, is given annually to recognize outstanding research in the field of catalysis.[4] The award is sponsored by the Gabor A. and Judith K. Somorjai Endowment Fund [5]

Previous recipients have been :

2013 Tobin J. Marks; [6]2012 Enrique Iglesia; 2011 Harold H. Kung; 2010 Robert J. Madix; 2009 Jens K. Nørskov; 2008 Avelino Corma Canos; 2007 Hans-Joachim Freund; 2006 James A. Dumesic; 2005 D. Wayne Goodman; 2004 Bruce C. Gates; 2003 Robert H. Grubbs; 2002 Jack H. Lunsford; 2001 Alexis T. Bell; 2000 Gabor A. Somorjai; 1999 Sir John Meurig Thomas


General references

  • Berkeley Campus News article on Somorjai
  • Berkeley Lab article on the National Medal of Science
  • Article on Somorjai's contribution to the science of ice skating
  • Raoul Wallenberg Centre media release on the Wolf Chemistry Prize
  • Somorjai Research Group website

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