USC’s George Olah has received the highest honor in science, the Nobel Prize, for his studies of chemistry. The award was announced Oct. 12.
Olah, 67, is the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Distinguished Professor of Organic Chemistry and director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Institute.
The work recognized by the Nobel Prize committee was his creation of “superacids” – substances billions of times more acidic than even the strongest conventional acids – and his pioneering use of them in exploring chemical reactions that involve hydrocarbons.
Hydrocarbons – the overall name for a myriad of compounds composed of the elements carbon and hydrogen – are basic building blocks of life, and key components of an endless array of industrial chemical products.
When a consumer drives to a pharmacy to buy a drug, the gasoline used in the trip, the plastic container the drug comes in and, in some cases, the drug itself were all made cheaper by insights gained from Olah’s work.
Lead-free gasoline, which has contributed significantly to the cleaning of the environment, comes directly out of Olah’s work. His research has also helped to produce much more fuel from each barrel of crude oil.
Hydrocarbon reactions are at the center of numerous industrial processes, including those that connect hydrocarbon blocks into the long chains we use as plastics and the ones that knock big natural petroleum hydrocarbon molecules apart and reassemble them as motor fuel and a wide variety of other products.
Such reactions are complicated multistep processes in which a series of transient intermediate substances are created, one after another, before the reaction concludes in the creation of stable end products. These intermediate substances – called carbocations – exist for only fractions of seconds as the reaction proceeds. But to control hydrocarbon reactions and increase their yields, chemists must know the geometry and properties of these carbocations in intimate detail.
Superacids make this study possible by allowing scientists to, in effect, freeze the reaction in its tracks. “Superacids allow us to put all of these carbocations in a bottle,” said Olah’s longtime collaborator G. K. Surya Prakash. “We can keep them for months, or even years. We can study them with a variety of tools.
“George Olah created this technology,” said Prakash. “He gave life to this whole field of study.” As a measure of his influence on the subject, the word “carbocations,” coined by Olah, has achieved wide currency.
Olah received word that he had won the prize in a 6:30 a.m. phone call to his Beverly Hills home. “I was obviously extremely grateful,” he said.
In remarks at a reception at the Loker Hydrocarbon Institute, he gave thanks to his wife, fellow chemist Judith Agnes Olah (“without her, I would not have done much in life”), and to his “unselfish, wonderful colleagues” at Loker, singling out Prakash. He also expressed gratitude to the Lokers, whose contributions created the institute he heads. (Katherine B. Loker is on the board of the institute.)
The Loker Institute is currently undergoing a $10 million expansion of its facilities on the University Park Campus.
“And I hope that this recognition will put USC on the map as a center for science,” Olah said. “I think this prize is another indication of the way USC is maturing.”
Addressing the entire university community, Olah said, “I would like to share this prize with all of you.”
President Steven B. Sample noted that “George Olah has been with this institution for a long, long time, loyally staying with the university as he has achieved increasing recognition. We are particularly proud that the work for which he is being honored today was in large part actually done here, at the University of Southern California.
“George Olah continues to be a creative scientist and teacher of young scientists. It is wonderful that he has received the prize now, in his productive prime of life.”
Olah has been at USC since 1977, when he came to the school from Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. He received his chemical training in Hungary, at the Technical University in Budapest, but left that country in 1956, in the wake of the Soviet invasion.
Olah has been a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences since 1976. He is the author of nearly 1,000 publications and numerous textbooks. His previous honors include the American Institute of Chemists Chemical Pioneer Award, the Richard C. Tolman Award, the California Scientist of the Year Award and the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung Award for Senior U.S. Scientists.
The Olahs have two sons, George Jr. and Ronald, both USC alumni.