Honorary award

One of the world’s most cited researchers receives the Hans Christian Ørsted Gold Medal

Professor Jens Kehlet Nørskov’s lifelong passion is theoretical catalysis, and he is one of the world’s most cited researchers in this field. He now receives the Hans Christian Ørsted Gold Medal for his research.

Professor Jens Kehlet Nørskov is head of the Catalysis Theory Center at DTU. Photo: Thomas Lekfeldt/Ritzau Scanpix
Professor Jens Kehlet Nørskov received the 2018 Niels Bohr International Gold Medal, which was presented by H.M. Queen Margrethe. Photo: Lars Svankjær

Memory lane

Physicist and chemist Jens Kehlet Nørskov is a graduate of Aarhus University, where he also completed his PhD project in theoretical physics in 1979. It was his inspiring PhD supervisor, Bengt Lundqvist, who sparked Jens Kehlet Nørskov’s interest in catalysis.

Catalysis is a process that accelerates a chemical reaction. The substance that makes this possible is called a catalyst. This means that much of the research into catalysis is also about finding the substances that are suitable as catalysts. Catalysis is involved in numerous industrial processes. According to the catalysis company Topsoe, catalysts are involved in 90 per cent of all commercially manufactured products – from fertilizers and furniture to the fuel in our cars.

When Jens Kehlet Nørskov chose the catalysis route, there was no map of the journey.

“Catalysis was a completely new territory. We understood very little at the time. We had mastered the practical process of catalysis, but there were no theoretical methods or any systematic understanding of what defines a good catalyst. So, we had to develop all that, and that’s what I’ve been working on all these years,” says Jens Kehlet Nørskov.

His driving force has always been the desire to build the theoretical foundation for catalysis.

“My biggest revelations have been when I suddenly realize a connection and can use it to build a theoretical framework, which can then explain lots of observations that we couldn’t make sense of before. Catalysis is quite complex, and it’s not a simple task to distill it into something useful that can predict whether the same process can be used in practice,” says Jens Kehlet Nørskov.


  • Born in September 1952.
  • Professor in physics and chemistry and Head of the Catalysis Theory Center at DTU.
  • From 2010 to 2018, he led a large catalysis research centre at Stanford University in the United States.
  • Internationally leading expert in catalytic processes focusing on green solutions for energy storage and the production of chemical building blocks and fuel.
  • Ranked among the world’s most cited researchers in chemistry, cf. Clarivate’s Highly Cited Researchers ranking.

Close collaboration with colleagues

On the list of the world’s most cited researchers, you also find Jens Kehlet Nørskov’s close colleague, Professor Ib Chorkendorff from DTU Physics. Because there can be no theoretical catalysis without experimental catalysis – and that is synonymous with the name Ib Chorkendorff. For several years, the two professors and their research groups have been nurturing an intense partnership at DTU, where they have ensured an ongoing and rapid exchange of theory and practice in catalysis work.

“Our research takes place in a very close collaboration within a larger group of people who work next to each other and constantly perform analyses and present new ideas. There is a constant back-and-forth that’s highly productive,” says Jens Kehlet Nørskov.

This way of structuring the research, with theorists working closely with experimental researchers, is a form of collaboration that Jens Kehlet Nørskov himself introduced at DTU, and which has since been copied elsewhere in the world. Not surprising, since the shorter distance between theory and experiments helps accelerate the development of solutions needed to achieve fossil-free fuels for aircraft, ships, and trucks.

The role of catalysis in Power-to-X

Power-to-X will play a significant role in achieving a society with a minimum consumption of fossil raw materials. Power-to-X means converting electricity (power) into something else (X). It can be used to produce fuels such as hydrogen or ammonia from electricity and water or nitrogen – in other words, no fossil resources. Power-to-X technology can also ensure that we have chemicals for the manufacture of medicines, plastics, and many other products we know from our everyday lives and which are today made using fossil resources.

Read more about Power-to-X on DTU's website on sustainability.

Whether we produce substances such as hydrogen, hydrocarbons, or ammonia using Power-to-X, catalysis is part of the process.

“While it’s already possible to produce both hydrogen and ammonia using Power-to-X, we are unfortunately far from the goal of being able to replace fossil fuels with greener alternatives,” says Jens Kehlet Nørskov.

“The technology that will ensure green fuels is still not good enough. The energy loss is too big. And so we still have a great deal of work ahead of us to streamline the processes,” says the professor.

In Denmark we seem to believe that if the Danes just save enough, buy enough electric cars, and don’t eat beef, all our problems will be solved. But it doesn’t matter much what we do in Denmark.
Professor Jens Kehlet Nørskov Catalysis Theory Center

Reducing cost a must

One way to streamline is to reduce the Power-to-X process from two steps (electrolysis and conventional catalysis) to an integrated one-step process. The one-step process will not be developed anytime soon, Jens Kehlet Nørskov predicts, and there will be a period where we will have to use the two-step process even if it means expensive end-products. And the price of green alternatives is something that Jens Kehlet Nørskov cares strongly about.

“We can’t ask countries that are just building their wealth to do so with expensive solutions, while we ourselves have benefited from cheaper resources such as oil, gas, and coal to produce enough energy to build our own societies,” says Jens Kehlet Nørskov.

It is imperative that all countries participate in the green transition if we are to have hopes of reducing the consumption of fossil resources. And here a hint of annoyance creeps into the professor’s voice when he mentions us Danes and our self-centredness:

“In Denmark we seem to believe that if the Danes just save enough, buy enough electric cars, and don’t eat beef, all our problems will be solved. But it doesn’t matter much what we do in Denmark. We need to convince all the large countries that we all need to do things a different way, and the only way we can convince them is to actually find alternatives that are cheap enough to compete with fossil resources. Electrification can take us a long way, but there are large sectors where this is not possible. If we do not develop these alternatives, we will not succeed with the green transition, or it will happen too slowly. We still need to invest heavily to develop new solutions, even if there is no guarantee that we will succeed. But it is guaranteed that no solutions will be developed unless we really throw ourselves at it.”

No plans of retirement

It does not worry Jens Kehlet Nørskov that most of his career is behind him while, in terms of research, he is still far from society’s goal of a green transition.

“That’s just how it is. There will always be new challenges and developments that need support. It’s still exciting, and there’s still plenty to do,” says Jens Kehlet Nørskov.

And with this he does not mean that there is plenty to do for the research community, but for himself. Even though most of his peers have retired and like to sleep in, Jens Kehlet Nørskov does not plan to put away his alarm clock in the mornings anytime soon.

“I’m happy with my work, and I’m glad I still have a lot to do,” says Jens Kehlet Nørskov.