Meet our Editor: Mario Rocca

Springer Handbook of Surface Science © Springer

In this interview Mario Rocca, experimental physicist at the University of Genoa and an experienced editor of both the Springer Series in Surface Science and the recently published Springer Handbook of Surface Science, talks about the significance of the surface and how research in surface science impacts our daily life. 


In your opinion, why is the surface so much more interesting than the bulk?

Mario Rocca: Surfaces are the interface of objects with the environment. They determine the chemical stability of devices and the performance of catalysts. The lower coordination of the atoms at the surface may modify electronic, magnetic and chemical properties allowing to modify surfaces and materials for focused applications. 

Which is the surface-related phenomenon that influences your own daily life the most?

Mario Rocca: Catalysis! It is so much more than removing toxic components from the exhaust gases of our cars. Heterogeneous catalysis is the main method used to produce the chemicals we all use in our daily life.

What, in your opinion, has been the most significant advancement of the recent years in this field and why?

Mario Rocca: We have seen tremendous developments, but if I had to reduce it to three I’d say: Firstly, the investigation of the physical and chemical properties of materials in the ultrathin limit down to purely two dimensional crystals. The best-known case is graphene but ultrathin films are as important. Secondly, the massive improvement in the understanding of heterogeneous catalytic reactions from very first principles, unraveling the single steps and preparing the reactants in well-defined quantum states to address the role of internal molecular degrees of freedom. And thirdly, the most important limitations of the surface science approach, i.e. the so called pressure and structure gaps could be addressed with near ambient photoemission and wide field microscopies allowing to collect information at the nanoscale.  

What are the biggest challenges for the field still ahead? 

Mario Rocca: Surface Science has long focused on model systems studied under controlled conditions, but our scientific community has now the tools to study the surface of real materials with atomic detail and under realistic conditions. Understanding the physical and chemical properties of clusters made up of a few thousand atoms will also open new perspectives.


Why did you personally decide to pursue a career in the field and what is the most exciting part of your current research?

Mario Rocca: Surface Science has been at the frontier of solid state physics for the last three to four decades and involves a large and well organized international community. Understanding the processes which occur at surfaces has a large impact on the everyday life of mankind, so it has been challenging but also rewarding to contribute to the development of this field.

In my own research I try to modify the physical and chemical properties of surfaces at will to tune them to optimize their performance for selected applications, one day we could create catalysts with total selectivity or electronic devices and memories that are faster or more integrated by orders of magnitude than today.

You are an experienced editor; how would you describe the experience of editing the Springer Handbook of Surface Science? 

Mario Rocca: This was a unique occasion to provide a broad and comprehensive perspective at the field. Together with my dear colleagues Talat Rahman and Luca Vattuone, I we had a chance to structure our vision of surface science. We’d like to thank all those who devoted part of their time to contribute to the Springer Handbook. In a time in which metrics influence the choices of researchers, getting authoritative and well written chapters by active scientists is not trivial.

Final question: For whom is this book a “must-read”?

Mario Rocca: It is indeed a “must-read” for ALL people active in the field of catalysis, nanoscience and nanotechnology pushed to the extreme limit. From graduate students to researchers in academia and industry.


Further information:

Springer Handbook of Surface Science