Gabor A. Somorjai was born in Budapest, Hungary, on May 4, 1935. He was a fourth year student of Chemical Engineering at the Technical University in Budapest in 1956 at the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution. He left Hungary and emigrated to the United States, where he received his Ph.D. degree in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1960. He became a U.S. citizen in 1962.
After graduation, he joined the IBM research staff in Yorktown Heights, New York, where he remained until 1964. At that time, he was appointed Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and in 1972 was promoted to Professor. He is also a Faculty Senior Scientist in the Materials Sciences Division, and Group Leader of the Surface Science and Catalysis Program at the Center for Advanced Materials, at the E.O. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Since 1965, Professor Somorjai has proposed, planned, and carried out a program to build the fundamental molecular basis for the surface science of heterogeneous catalysis. He characterized the structure of clean single crystal surfaces, and determined the structure and bonding of adsorbed molecules. He used transition metal single crystal surfaces as model catalysts and carried out catalytic reactions on these crystal surfaces. He developed much of the instrumentation necessary for studying molecular surface chemistry and catalysis at high reactant pressures (atmospheres) on the 1-10nm transition metal nanoparticles, supported on mezoporous and microporous oxides. These include high pressure reaction cells that are combined with ultra high vacuum surface characterization chambers, sum frequency generation (SFG) vibrational spectroscopy, and scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), which can be used to monitor surfaces under reaction conditions, in situ. His discoveries have also included the size and shape dependence of turnover rates and other kinetic variables. The evolution of nanomaterials science has had a large impact on molecular catalysis science and is heavily used to study multipath catalytic reactions with high product selectivity. Because of these contivutions, catalysts are able to be studied under reaction conditions to monitor dynamic changes that occur during catalytic reactions with high spatial and time resolution.
As of 1994, ordered arrays of nanoparticles of transition metals fabricated by electron beam lithography, photolithography, and colloid science techniques, have been studied and also utilized as model catalysts. Since 1997, polymer surfaces, their molecular structure, composition, chemistry, and tribology (friction, hardness), have been explored by SFG and the atomic force microscope (AFM) for this purpose.
Some of his achievements have been acknowledged in the National Medal of Science (2002), Langmuir Prize (2007), Preistley Medal from ACS (2008), BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award (2011), ENI New Frontiers of Hydrocarbons Prize (2011), National Academy of Sciences Award (2013), William H. Nichols Medal (2015), and Theodore William Richards Medal (2017).
Professor Somorjai has educated more than 140 Ph.D. students and 250 postdoctoral fellows. He is the author of more than 1000 scientific papers in the fields of surface chemistry, heterogeneous catalysis, and solid state chemistry. He has written four textbooks, Principles of Surface Chemistry, Prentice Hall, 1972; Chemistry in Two Dimensions: Surfaces, Cornell University Press, 1981; and Introduction to Surface Chemistry and Catalysis, Wiley-Interscience, 1994 and the Second Edition in 2010; as well as a monograph, Adsorbed Monolayers on Solid Surfaces, Springer-Verlag, 1979.