George Olah dies at age 89 | March 13, 2017 Issue - Vol. 95 Issue 11 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 95 Issue 11 | p. 6 | News of The Week
Issue Date: March 13, 2017 | Web Date: March 9, 2017

George Olah dies at age 89

Chemistry Nobel Laureate advanced carbocation chemistry and championed alternative energy technology
Department: Science & Technology
News Channels: Organic SCENE
Keywords: obituaries, Olah, George Olah, carbocation
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.

Chemical & Engineering News
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Gheorghe D. Mateescu (March 9, 2017 9:42 PM)
George Andrew Olah war one of the Eagles I had the luck to fly with in my 50 years of American Journey. His intuition was truly unique, his desire to achieve, truly outstanding. His admiration and respect for the other Eagle of mine, C. D. Nenitzescu, did prove not only his noble nature, but also his knowledge of Value. Rest in Peace, dear George.
Gheorghe D. Mateescu (March 9, 2017 9:49 PM)
George Andrew Olah war one of the Eagles I had the luck to fly with in my 50 years of American Journey. His intuition was truly unique, his desire to achieve, truly outstanding. His admiration and respect for the other Eagle of mine, C. D. Nenitzescu, did prove not only his noble nature, but also his knowledge of Value. Rest in Peace, dear George. Gheorghe D. Mateescu, Professor Emeritus, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.
Prof. Bhyrappa P (March 10, 2017 4:07 AM)
He was an amazing scientific researcher with impeccable devotion towards science.
God bless his family and rest his soul in peace.
Balaram (Balu) Gupta (March 13, 2017 10:05 AM)
I had a great fortune of working with Prof. Olah as a graduate student back in 70s. He was like a father figure for me and was a great mentor, I will always cherish those good memories. He was a great chemist of all times and the entire scientific community will greatly miss his continued scientific contributions.
John P. Fackler, Jr. (March 15, 2017 5:08 PM)
George was the department head at Western Reserve when Case merged with Western Reserve in 1967. He became the first head of the joint department and stepped down when he felt the merger had been consummated effectually. Ernie Yeager followed him. I became his department head in 1972 while he was doing the work that led to the Nobel prize. He was a great colleague and I was able to obtain the help needed to get him nominated for membership in the NAS. I was very disappointed when he left CWRU for USC but left myself in 1982 to come as Dean of Science to Texas A&M. George and Judy visited us at A&M and lectured in our Frontiers in Chemistry program which I hosted with Al Cotton. I was fortunate to be invited to his 80th celebration and saw him last to talk after his Priestley Medal lecture. He was an outstanding chemist who also was a wonderful person. The many scientific discussions we had will long be remembered as will our discussions of departmental matters at CWRU.
Douglas Adamson (March 16, 2017 10:36 AM)
Very sad, but it's hard to imagine a more full life. I received my PhD from Prof. Olah in 1991. He was an incredible person, and even as a young and naive graduate student, it was clear we were all very lucky to have him as an advisor. My only regret is not taking more advantage of his often repeated invitation to the group that his door was always open and to come talk. As busy as he was, his students were always a priority. Having spent quite a bit of time in academics since, I now realize how rare that is (and how hard it is to do). If we can make even a fraction of the positive contribution he made to science and his students, we have to consider ourselves lucky. He will be missed, but but will be remembered for a very long time.
Carlos A. Cabrera (March 17, 2017 1:12 PM)
I have lost a great friend, mentor and source of inspiration. George taught me what science is really about; boundless dreams followed by hard work and dedication to elucidate what not only seemed improbable but imposible. The "Methanol Economy", now coming to fruition is a living legacy and testimony to his enormous intellect and capacity. Your friends and colleagues will miss you deeply as I remain infinitely grateful for having had the opportunity to spend time and work with you.
Carlos A. Cabrera Member of the Board Loker Institute
Henk de Boer (March 18, 2017 5:27 PM)
I had the honor of cooperating with Professor George Olah in a complicated patent case relating to omeprazole. The principle passsage in US 4786505 said that bases which should be combined with omeprazole to enhance stability in solid dosage forms create a "micro-pH" around each omeprazole particle of not less than pH = 7. Of course George was of the opinion that no one could define a pH in a solid substance.

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