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Professor Meirion Wyn Roberts (1931-2014)

A Pioneer of Modern Surface Science

Prof Wyn Roberts

Meirion Wyn Roberts was born in the village of Rhydamman (Ammanford) in Dyfed, and educated at the Amman Valley Grammar School, where, apart from his scholastic achievements, he was a popular and fleet-footed wing three-quarter and a sprinter well-known amongst his contemporaries in the schools of South Wales. It was as representatives of the Carmarthenshire Schools Athletic team, competing in the Welsh championships, that we first got to know one another in 1947.

He took an honours degree in Chemistry at the University of Wales, Swansea and proceeded to undertake research for his Ph.D under Dr (later Professor) Keble Sykes on the intricacies of the surface properties of the nickel films deposited by the decomposition of nickel carbonyl, a phenomenon discovered by Ludwig Mond, the founder of Imperial Chemical Industries. He pursued post-doctoral work in the group led by Professor F. C. Tompkins at Imperial College, London, 1955-57, before his appointment as Scientific Officer at the National Chemical Laboratory, 1957-59.

His great promise as a surface scientist prompted the late Professor Charles Kemball to recruit him as a lecturer in Queen’s University, Belfast (1959-66). There he carried out outstanding work on chemisorptions of gases on metal surfaces, on the work function of metals, and the physical chemistry of metallic oxidation. This led to his appointment as the Foundation Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Bradford, 1966-79, where he did work of seminal importance in the elucidation of gas-solid interaction, and where he pioneered many new techniques to address the numerous questions that arise during such interactions. Two such techniques were electron spectroscopy for chemical analysis (ESCA), later refined and re-named as X-ray induced and ultra-violet-induced photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS and UPS respectively), and low-energy electron diffraction. So good was his experimental prowess that the Vacuum Generators Company (in East Grinstead) manufactured one of the first (and best) commercial photoelectron spectrometers, based on his original creation. This was a great success nationally and internationally, and was used by university scientists the world over.

He was appointed Head of the Department of Physical Chemistry at University College, Cardiff, 1979-88; deputy Principal, University of Wales, Cardiff, 1989-92; and Head of the School of Chemistry 1988-97. On retirement he became a Research Professor (from 1998 to the time of his death).

One of his most outstanding early contributions to science – described beautifully by him in his Tilden Medal and Prize Lectureship of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1976 – was to demonstrate that, when the diatomic molecule, carbon monoxide, is adsorbed by metals such as iron cobalt, ruthenium or nickel, it does not form surface layers of metal carbonyls, as had been predicted by most inorganic and organometallic chemists, but, instead, the molecule rapidly dissociates into its component atoms, which are each strongly bound to the underlying metal. This aspect of his work did much to elucidate the mechanism of the Fischer-Tropsch process, discovered in Germany in the early 1920’s, and still the basis of the production of hydrocarbons (for transport and heating) from the gases generated in the partial oxidation of coal or biomass.

For twenty years or so his research was focused on the identification of short-lived (transient) oxygen species at metal catalyst surfaces, especially in processes involving the oxidation of ammonia. This aspect of his work elicited praise from the German Nobel prize-winner, Gerhard Ertl, and many others.

Because of his distinction in research, and also his lucidity as a lecturer, he was appointed visiting professor in many overseas universities and academies. These included Xiamen, China (1985) sponsored by the World Bank; University of California, Berkeley (1984); and the Indian Academy of Sciences (1984). Numerous co-workers who collaborated with him in his various posts, especially a group of gifted scholars from Northern Ireland, went on to hold distinguished posts in countries as far afield as Hong Kong, Japan, Pakistan, Eire and the U.S. He had particularly strong links with Dr Hajo Freund, now a Director of the Fritz Haber Institute, Berlin, and their much cited joint paper, published in 1996 on the use of carbon dioxide as a feedstock was well ahead of its time.

In a masterly survey, completed only a few weeks prior to his death, he re-visited this and a related topic in an article entitled, “Low energy pathways and precursor states in catalytic oxidation involving water and carbon dioxide at metal surfaces”, soon to appear in the journal Catalysis Letters.

Of his numerous original articles, reviews and books, two, in particular, stand out. His much-acclaimed 1978 (Oxford University Press) monograph with C. S. McKee on “The Chemistry of the Metal-Gas Interface”, and his 2008 text with his former student and colleague P. R. Davies on “Atom-Resolved Surface Reactions” (RSC Press). As an author of readable text books, he had the happy knack of prefacing his own work with choice selections from other fields. In his book with P. R. Davies he reminds us of Theodore Roosevelt’s remarks: “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points how the strong man stumbled or when the doer of deeds could have been done better. The credit belongs to the man that is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring, so that his place shall never be with these cold timid sorts, who know neither victory nor defeat.”

In addition to winning several prestigious awards (e.g. the British Vacuum Council Prize; the Royal Society of Chemistry Prize in Surface Chemistry (1987); and the A. G. Evans medal (2008), Wyn Roberts served on many influential bodies. These included: chairman of the Trustees of the Wool Foundation (1981- ); as a member of the Science and Engineering Research Council, Chemistry Committee, 1972-78; the University Grants Physical Sciences Committee, 1982-88; the CNAA and also as a member of the Board of Governors of Monmouth Haberdashers’ School. He was appointed Freeman of the Worshipful Co. of Haberdashers, 2008; a Freeman of the City of London, 2008; and was an Hon. Fellow of Swansea University and Cardiff University. He was also a leading member of the Learned Society of Wales.

In all his dealings with young and old alike, with the distinguished and with novitiates, Wyn Roberts behaved with gentlemanly decency and generosity of spirit. Surface scientists and many others throughout the world will mourn his passing, and remember him with deep affection.

- Sir John Meurig Thomas FLSW FRS