Ertl’s work is important because chemical reactions play by different rules when one or more of the molecules is tied to a surface and can’t flop around in solution. All kinds of everyday processes occur only at surfaces – the rusting of iron or the adhering of paint to a wall. it’s really difficult to took at a process that occurs on a layer of matter that is only a few atoms wide. Ertl is a master of adapting whatever techniques get him the answer he needs, and that has made him an analytical jack-of-all trades.
Ertl’s work has had probably the most direct impact on the science of catalysts. Catalysis is almost exclusively a surface phenomenon, and much of the materials we use and the clean air we breathe is owed to the catylitic reactions that Ertl studied. Mankind has long known that certain substances catalyze reactions, but Ertl began to show us how and why. The importance of that can not be overstated. It is exactly analgous to that period in the dye industry’s history when Perkin’s rivals in Germany began to understand the whys and hows of organic synthesis – in Derek Lowe’s words, leaving the era of witchcraft. The German dyers then began to best Perkin’s trial-and error method – accelerating progress and beating the master at his own game:
It was not long after Perkin’s original feat that Kekule and his structural formulas supplied organic chemists with a map of the territory, so to speak. Using that map, they could work out logical schemes of reactions, reasonable methods for altering a structural formula bit by bit in order to convert one molecule into another. It became possible to synthesize new organic chemicals not by accident, as in Perkin’s triumph, but with deliberation.
We are about to watch this same process happen in the development of indutrial catalysts.