Western professor key to Nobel Prize-winning research

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By Communications Staff
Monday, December 10, 2007
A professor at The University of Western Ontario is credited as a collaborator in research that garnered a German scientist the 2007 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
 
 

Peter Norton
 
Gerhard Ertl, received his Nobel Prize earlier today, for his studies of chemical reactions on solid surfaces.   
 
Western chemistry professor Peter Norton is Canada's most distinguished surface/interface scientist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Research he conducted while working with Ertl more than 25 years ago is prominently referenced in Ertl's Nobel Prize citation.
 
Norton worked as a Humboldt visiting fellow in Ertl's lab in Munich in 1980. At the time, he was on sabbatical leave from the Chalk River Laboratories. In 1986, Norton moved his lab and research team to Western.  
 
Today, Norton is Director of Interface Science Western in the Department of Chemistry at Western. Many of his studies are considered classics, including the first molecular level understanding of oscillating catalytic reactions, which he worked on with Ertl.  
 
Surface science is of particular importance to the field of catalysis. This work is key to many areas of environmental science, from the catalytic converter in automobiles (in which carbon monoxide is oxidized to carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas), to the causes of the ozone hole.  
 
Norton says that even in the early 1980s, Ertl was known for high quality and innovative research. “He was quite a magnet for visitors, students and post-docs. He is just a prince of a person, a very good guy," said Norton.   According to Norton, Ertl and his team were using a type of spectroscopy [the study of the interaction between radiation and matter] with an early version of an instrument to perform measurements on molecules adsorbed on platinum crystals.
 
“But the experiments with this early apparatus weren't terribly successful," said Norton, who turns 65 tomorrow.
 
“I had been working at Chalk River on the surface chemical systems that interested Ertl, and it was at that point that we got talking about the catalysis of carbon monoxide oxidation. I had a lot of experience in that area. We managed to get a different apparatus working and very rapidly found evidence of these oscillations on platinum wire."
 
“The only remaining mystery was how does the reaction oscillate? So we imported platinum crystals from Chalk River along with a technique I had patented. The expression in England would be it was like bringing coals to Newcastle," laughed Norton.
 
“And we brought it over and installed the crystals into the chamber and lo and behold, the rest is history."      
 
“We have shared a few emails over the years. I will have to get over to Germany to see Gerhard in the New Year. I think he owes me a lunch," quipped Norton, who once studied Apollo 11 and 12 moon rocks, some of which were collected by Neil Armstrong.  
 
Norton has also invented probes for interface research, and is a world leader in the quantitative use of scanning probe microscopy for research on chemical, biological and tribological surfaces and interfaces.  
 

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