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People: Anders Nilsson on Surfaces, Water and Energy

Video by Brad Plummer and Julie Karceski (time 4:00).
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Anders Nilsson was both honored and a little amused when he recently received the Humboldt Research Award. The award, he noted, was for a "senior U.S. scientist."

"I was a little shocked because I'm still a Swedish citizen," Nilsson joked.

He was nominated by scientists in Germany with whom he will collaborate at the University of Hamburg and the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin. The Humboldt Research award funds scientists for up to one year of scientific research based in Germany. Nilsson, who studies chemical processes on surfaces and water chemistry, looks forward to gathering new ideas on how to better use the Linac Coherent Light Source here at SLAC.

Much of Nilsson's research has focused on understanding chemical bonds, especially bonds on the surfaces of materials. He uses X-rays to examine them at the atomic level. More recently, Nilsson also began studying the structure of water in its liquid phase, entering a debate on the fundamental properties of perhaps Earth's most essential molecule. These two rather different fields within chemistry converge in research methods, as they both rely on X-rays and can benefit from the LCLS's extraordinarily bright, short pulses of laser light.

While Nilsson's research homes in on the microscopic, the implications are anything but. Applications of new ideas in water chemistry and surface interactions unfold into agriculture, energy production and storage, water sustainability and beyond.

"The goal is to be able to improve and develop new ways of transforming energy by using chemistry," he said.

He gave the example of nitrogen fixation, an industrial reaction used to produce ammonia. This reaction, which scientists estimate gobbles up two percent of the world's annual energy supply alone, is essential in creating fertilizer for agriculture. But the difficulty in transforming nitrogen, which is abundant in the air we breathe, into ammonia lies in the speed of the reaction. A catalyst, which increases the rate of the reaction, is required. Nilsson noted that unlocking keys to these chemical interactions could lead to a more efficient process.

"If we understand catalysis better, we can consider novel ways for this reaction [to happen]," he said.

Nilsson also delves into the study of water. Water has unique properties in comparison to most liquids, perplexing scientists. Nilsson stressed the importance of better understanding water, and how to use it more efficiently, because of its irreplaceable position in the life cycle.

These two research areas, water chemistry and surface chemistry, will move forward thanks to Nilsson's work with the LCLS. New ideas about using chemistry for energy transformation are popping up in the scientific community. He looks forward to providing scientists with a new set of tools with which to study atoms and the bonds between them.

"We can do a lot in all these chemical energy transformations," he said, "make fuels from sun light, make production of chemicals more energy efficient, and have less of an impact on the environment."

óJulie Karceski
SLAC Today, February 10, 2010