Published 1 July 2013 by Beatrice Lugger

Energy for Early Birds

This morning my alarm rings at 5:50 a.m.. It is my Science Breakfast Morning of the week: ‘How does Surface Science Contribute to Solve Global Energy and Environmental Issues?’. Star guest of this event upon invitation of the Republic of Korea is Gerhard Ertl, the Surface Master and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 2007.

Science Breakfast upon invitation of the Republic of Korea
© Rolf Schultes


Arriving at the ‘Forum am See’ a long queue welcomes me at 7 a.m. After a nice breakfast and some small talk with young researchers and a French journalist the session starts. First Jeong Young Park, Group Leader of the Center for Nanomaterials and Chemical Reactions at the Institute for Basic Research in South Korea, gives a nice overview of surface sciences today. He shows that surfaces play  an important role in the fields of biointerfaces, nanomaterials, coatings, corrosion, sensors, integrated circuitry, magnetic information storage, electrochemistry, tribology, catalysts and more.

This variety naturally leads to hopes. So certainly many people hope for modern surfaces to encourage breakthroughs in main topics such as energy storage (global energy) and better catalysts (environmental problems). But, as this session showes, it is as usual with fundamental research: It might take more time than expected, until new findings lead to practical techniques. Especially as surface basic research is done under special conditions such as vacuum. But in reality many chemical reactions typically operate at solid-liquid interfaces – and no vacuum at all.

Jeong Young Park names the two top challenges in this: Filling the material gap – from single crystals to an industrial catalyst – and filling the pressure gap.

Jeong Young Park and Gerhard Ertl
© Rolf Schultes

Gerhard Ertl often is asked today about concrete solutions, especially for energy storage. Although quite a lot is known nowadays of surface chemistry, he says: “Only some decades ago we started to figure out, what is happening on the surface.” We have to realize the fact, that as chemical compounds vary, their surfaces work completely different. This is also the reason why it is impossible to say, there is ‘one single best catalyst material’.

So this morning arouses me. I woke up from a dream of a near future with good working catalysts and new energy storages, practical batteries for electrical cars… But I want to keep on dreaming. And when I see the power of all the young engaged researchers here, this gives me a good reason for hope!

Beatrice Lugger

Beatrice Lugger is a science journalist and science social media specialist with a background as a chemist. She is Scientific Director of the National Institute for Science Communication, NaWik – @BLugger is her twitter handle, Quantensprung her own blog.