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"Surface Chemistry — An Engine of Modern Technology Also at Work Amongst the Stars"

Friday, October 23, 2009 - 11:00am

"Science for the Future" World-class Summit

City University of Hong Kong


John T. Yates, Jr.


Professor of Chemistry

University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904

Tel: (434) 924-7514; Fax: (434) 924-3710





Surface chemistry is concerned with the behavior of atoms and molecules chemically bound to surfaces in layers less than about 1 nm thickness.

The rapid development of modern surface chemistry in the last half of the twentieth century has resulted from the combination of extraordinary measurement tools and incisive quantum theoretical methods. One can now directly observe and manipulate surface-bound atoms and molecules in the laboratory yielding detailed understanding of the chemistry involved. The behavior of electrons within atoms and molecules bound to surfaces may also be measured by means of many surface spectroscopies, giving deep insight into the nature of the surface-chemical bond. Experimental work in surface chemistry is now supported and enhanced by the application of accurate electronic theory to understand chemical bonding and chemical reactivity at surfaces.

This understanding is extremely important because of the economic impact in our modern world. Technologies are driven by surface chemistry at work. The world economic impact of technologies dependent on surface chemistry is enormous. Surface chemistry is at work in heterogeneous catalysts used throughout the chemical industry to produce almost all synthetic materials, as well as in the energy industry concerned with processing fossil fuels to make gasoline. Surface chemistry is also a dominant factor in environmental remediation, especially in catalytic exhaust systems used for cars and light trucks. Semiconductor chips are manufactured using exquisite control of surface chemistry to produce electronic devices with nanometer dimensional accuracy.

A new area of academic interest to chemists is emerging. It is believed that some of the molecules discovered by astronomers in stellar atmospheres and in diffuse gas clouds may have their origin in surface-chemical reactions occurring on dust grain surfaces which are exposed to stellar radiation. Some of these molecules may well be the precursors to life in the Universe and may have arrived on Earth through collisions with comets and asteroids early in our planet’s history.

This talk will review highlights of the exciting development of surface chemistry from the 1920’s to the present and will explore frontiers of the field, especially astrochemistry, for the 21st century and beyond.




John T. Yates, Jr. is a Professor of Chemistry and Shannon Research Fellow at the University of Virginia. He received his B.S. in Chemistry from Juniata College in 1956 and his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from M.I.T. in 1960. After three years as Assistant Professor at Antioch College, he moved to the National Bureau of Standards, where he was an NRC Postdoctoral Associate from 1963-1965 and continued as a Research Staff Member until 1981. From 1981-2006, he joined the University of Pittsburgh as the first R. K. Mellon Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Pittsburgh Surface Science Center. He joined the faculty at the University of Virginia in 2006 and established a new program in Surface Science. His specific research interests include surface chemistry and photochemistry, electronic excitation on surfaces, the dynamics of surface processes, adsorption, nanotubes, astrochemistry, and the discovery/development of new methods for surface chemistry research. He has published over 700 papers, co-authored or co-edited several books, holds patents for a variety of spectroscopy and surface techniques, serves on the editorial board of six different journals and two book series in surface science and catalysis, and remains active in undergraduate and graduate teaching. His professional honors and awards, though too many to list in full, include such distinguished achievements as the Department of Commerce Gold Medal in 1981, the Kendall Award of ACS in Colloid or Surface Chemistry in 1986, the First President's Distinguished Research Award at the University of Pittsburgh in 1989, the Alexander von Humboldt Research Award in 1994, election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1996, the Arthur W. Adamson Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Surface Chemistry from the ACS in 1999, and the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry from the ACS in 2007. According to the most recent Hirsch-index ranking of living chemists (Feb. 2009 Update), Yates is ranked 75th in the world for citations and associated research impact.