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ACS News

George Olah

Chemistry Nobel Laureate advanced carbocation chemistry and championed alternative energy technology

by Mitch Jacoby
March 9, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 11

Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN
A 2005 photo of George Olah.
Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN

George A. Olah, the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Distinguished Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Southern California and the recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, has died. He was 89.

Olah was a towering figure, physically and scientifically, who earned international chemistry fame 40 years ago for his novel use of “magic acid,” a concoction of antimony pentafluoride and fluorosulfonic acid that is billions of times as strong as sulfuric acid, to prepare long-lived carbocations.

By extending the lifetimes of these fleeting species, Olah was able to probe them directly via NMR spectroscopy, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, and other methods. That work rapidly advanced and greatly popularized the study of reactive intermediates and organic reaction mechanisms. It ultimately led to Olah’s receipt of the Nobel Prize.

In addition to research in fluorine chemistry, Olah and longtime USC colleague and scientific collaborator G. K. Surya Prakash recently focused on the chemical transformations needed to convert methane and carbon dioxide to methanol. They aimed to drive the so-called methanol economy, in which an inexpensive, abundant, and carbon-neutral supply of methanol could be widely used as an energy carrier.

In the drive to develop technology that underpins methanol use, the USC researchers developed a direct methanol fuel cell for generating electricity from methanol without first producing hydrogen. The team also developed catalytic processes for reducing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to methanol.

In an industrial development of this green technology, Carbon Recycling International began operating the world’s first commercial CO2-to-renewable-methanol plant in Iceland in 2012. Named in Olah’s honor, the plant recycles 5,500 tons of CO2 annually and produces some 5 million L of methanol, which is used in gasoline blends.

In a 2005 interview with C&EN upon winning the Priestley Medal, the American Chemical Society’s highest honor, Olah remarked that no award meant more to him than the ACS Award in Petroleum Chemistry, which he received in 1963 for his work on Friedel-Crafts chemistry related to refinery processing of crude oil.

Olah, who in 1963 had recently relocated from Hungary, said: “I was an unknown immigrant at that time. And for a young guy who came from a faraway country and started all over with nothing, it really was a significant honor. I still feel that way.” ACS later renamed the award the George A. Olah Award in Hydrocarbon or Petroleum Chemistry.

“He was an amazing guy—a visionary and a giant of a chemist,” says Prakash, who worked with Olah for more than 40 years. “He was also a great mentor and teacher,always jovial and very friendly.”

Gabor A. Somorjai of the University of California, Berkeley, also knew Olah for decades—since the 1950s, when they were both at the Technical University of Budapest. “George was a tireless promoter of science and technology, especially connected to energy independence,” Somorjai says. “He used his scientific talents and excellent communication skills for the benefit of society.”

The University of Utah’s Peter J. Stang, another fellow Hungarian chemist, expresses a similar sentiment: “George was one of the most creative and original chemists of the 20th and early 21st centuries,” Stang says. “The world has lost a great person and a great scientist in the truest sense of the word.


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