George Olah, a Nobel laureate and Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, and G.K. Surya Prakash PhD ’78, professor of chemistry and director of the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, have been busy.
Shortly before this month’s announcement that they had received a first-ever $1 million prize from the State of Israel for their innovative research on alternative fuels, the two pillars of the chemistry department at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences learned that each was to be honored by the nation of his birth for lifelong achievements in chemistry.
Olah was born 86 years ago in Budapest, Hungary. He was recently recognized by the Semmelweis University, Hungary’s oldest medical school, which honored him with its 2013 Semmelweis Budapest Award.
Founded in 1769, Semmelweis University is widely recognized as one of Europe’s leading centers of medicine and health sciences. The annual Semmelweis Budapest Award was established in 2009 by the university’s senate. It recognizes the achievements of an international researcher in the field of medical biology whose research activities have produced internationally acknowledged results and whose work contributes significantly toward the benefit of humankind and an understanding of living natural science.
“I am honored to receive this award as it recognizes my efforts in furthering our knowledge in the area of chemistry,” said Olah, adding that he wished the students and faculty of Semmelweis University much success in their work. “It is essential that we educate young competent physicians for the benefit of humanity.
“The award was given to me by my native country and a leading medical university that represents an excellent example of the significance of the education and biomedical research provided by research universities around the world.”
Rector Ágoston Szél and Vice Rector Mária Judit Molnár of Semmelweis University traveled to Los Angeles from Budapest to present the award to Olah at a ceremony held at USC’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute on Oct. 11.
About 60 people attended the ceremony, where USC Dornsife Dean Steve A. Kay spoke. The event included a sit-down lunch following the award presentation at the George and Judith Olah Library. At the end of the ceremony, Hungarian Ambassador Dán Károly presented Olah with a portrait of himself by Hungarian painter Kornél Zámbó.
Olah’s research spans a wide range of synthetic and mechanistic organic chemistry. In 1977, he became founding director of the USC Loker Institute, guiding it to become a powerhouse of technological advancements. His work on the chemistry of carbocations earned him the 1994 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
However, Olah considers his work with Prakash to develop the methanol economy — a proposal to use methanol to replace fossil fuels and petroleum-based feedstocks — as the most important achievement of his long career. Methanol, which can be produced from renewable resources, such as agricultural waste products, also has the potential to be generated by recycling atmospheric carbon dioxide — setting up the possibility of a carbon-neutral fuel source which Olah and Prakash hope will replace oil.
Prakash, who was born in Bangalore, India, learned that he had been appointed to India’s National Academy of Sciences (NAS) when he received a letter from one of his native country’s foremost scientists, C.N. Ramachandra Rao, who had nominated the USC Dornsife chemist for the honor.
“It’s a great feeling to be recognized by my own country, my birthplace — India,” Prakash said. “It was particularly nice that I got elected as a foreign fellow as I have been a U.S. citizen for many years. Apparently they elect only five foreign fellows each year, so I am in great company.”
Prakash earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemistry in India before coming to the United States in 1974. He arrived at USC in 1977 as one of Olah’s doctoral students, helping to establish the Loker Institute, which he now runs. Prakash obtained his PhD in physical organic chemistry at USC Dornsife and joined the faculty in 1981. He holds the George A. and Judith A. Olah Nobel Laureate Chair in Hydrocarbon Chemistry and is an award-winning pioneer in the fields of hydrocarbon, mechanistic and synthetic organic chemistry.
Prakash has also been widely recognized by his peers in the United States. He is the recipient of several awards, including two highly coveted national awards of the American Chemical Society (ACS): the 2004 ACS National Award in Fluorine Chemistry and the 2006 ACS National Award in Hydrocarbon Chemistry.
Earning a medal from the Chemical Society of India several years ago for his lifelong contributions to chemistry, Prakash has maintained close ties with the country.
“This is my 40th year in the United States of America. It’s my home now. But India is also my home,” he said. “I have two homes.”
He travels to India every year to give talks. He also accompanied USC President C. L. Max Nikias as part of USC’s 2011 delegation to India.
“My research group at USC Dornsife has benefited from the many Indian scientists and colleagues who have come to work with us and many Indian students who have earned their doctorates with me,” said Prakash, who will travel to Allahabad, India, in December to give a lecture about the virtues of methanol as an alternative fuel at the international four-day Science Conclave at the Indian Institute of Information Technology.
“I understand that there will be a ceremony in Allahabad to honor the new NAS fellows at the same time that I will be there for the conclave,” Prakash said. “This honor from India is really special.”