Organic chemist G.K. Surya Prakash’s deft manipulations of molecules and atoms, most notably of hydrogen, carbon and fluorine, have led to many advances in research and industry.
Last month, they earned Prakash major recognition from the Southern California Section of the American Chemical Society, which awarded him the 2006 Richard C. Tolman Medal for his outstanding contributions to chemistry.
A professor of chemistry in USC College, Prakash holds the George A. and Judith A. Olah Nobel Laureate Chair in Hydrocarbon Chemistry and is scientific co-director of the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute.
The medal is named for distinguished Caltech scientist Richard C. Tolman (1881–1948), who, in 1917, famously showed that the electron was the charge-carrying particle in metals and determined its mass. Since 1960, the medal has been awarded each year to a chemist in Southern California for broad achievements in chemistry. Tolman Medal recipients include seven Nobel Prize-winners.
Nobel Laureate George Olah, a USC Distinguished Professor, holder of the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Chair in Organic Chemistry and the 1991 recipient of the Tolman Medal, nominated his former student and longtime colleague for the honor.
“It is a great personal pleasure and wonderful occasion to congratulate Surya Prakash for the Tolman Medal, an award with a very distinguished history,” Olah said. “I’ve been blessed to have an association with him for over 30 years. In addition to his research and contributions to science, he is a great teacher and, most importantly, a great human being and colleague.”
Section chair Thomas LeBon presented the honor to Prakash at an awards dinner held on campus April 24.
In a lecture following dinner, Prakash provided an overview of more than 30 years of research in organic chemistry, giving special attention to his work with the dynamic fluorine atom. He called his relationship with fluorine chemistry one of his life’s greatest love affairs (the other, he was quick to note, was with his wife, Rama, who along with his grown children, Archana and Arjun, attended the dinner.)
“Fluorine is a small atom with a big ego,” Prakash told guests.
From Prakash’s perspective, that big ego is deserved. Despite the volatile, reactive and, under some conditions, explosive nature of fluorine, chemists have found a bevy of uses for the element. Prakash discussed many examples of today’s “ubiquitous” fluorinated compounds, from drugs that battle cancer, malaria and depression to pesticides relied on by farmers, materials like Teflon and polymers, and coolants that do not harm the ozone layer.
Working with fluorinated materials successfully, Prakash said, requires constant attention to and understanding of “conditions, conditions, conditions.” By controlling conditions such as temperature and solvent, fluorine can allow chemists to do “chemical acrobatics,” he said, creating scores of potentially valuable and less-polluting new compounds.
Prakash’s pioneering work developing new ways to add fluorine to organic compounds has been critical to the boom in fluorinated molecules over the last few decades. In 1989, for example, he developed a chemical compound — trifluoromethyltrimethylsilane and often called the “Prakash reagent” — that helped “tame fluorine,” and is now used extensively by pharmaceutical, pesticide and polymer chemists worldwide.
Among many other advances, in 2003, his group developed a novel method that further tamed the fluorination process. This method proved simpler than existing ones and provided a more stable source of fluorinated molecules (trifluoromethyl groups) for applications in the lab and industry. It also has a better environmental profile: Prakash’s “environmentally friendly” trifluoromethyl reagent is made from non-ozone depleting trifluoromethane, which itself is an inexpensive, industrial chemical by-product that has had few uses in the past.
Among many other important chemical discoveries, Prakash and his colleagues’ work has yielded a method for converting natural gas to hydrocarbon liquids and a high-efficiency, zero-emissions fuel cell that converts methanol to electrical energy.
Born in Bangalore, India in 1953, Prakash began his studies of chemistry as an undergraduate at Bangalore University, where he earned a B.Sc. (Hons) in 1972. After completing a master’s in chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology in 1974, he began doctoral studies with Olah, then at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. In 1977, Olah and his group, including Prakash, moved to USC to establish the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute. Prakash received a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry from USC College in 1978, and was appointed to the College chemistry faculty in 1981.
A prolific scientist and writer, Prakash holds 21 patents, has published more than 550 scientific articles and co-authored or edited eight books and monographs, including a major volume on fluorine chemistry. Written with Olah and USC’s Alain Goeppert, his most recent book, Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy (Wiley-VCH, 2006), has attracted attention from both the scientific and mainstream media.
Prakash has earned national and international acclaim for his work. He has received two top national awards from the American Chemical Society, one in 2004 for the “breadth, exceptional creativity and impact” of his contributions to fluorine chemistry. He earned the second in 2006 for his outstanding contributions to hydrocarbon chemistry. He is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the European Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Humanities. This year he has also received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from his alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras. Closer to home, he has won USC’s Research Excellence Award, the Phi Kappa Phi Faculty Recognition Award for Research and Scholarship, and the JPL/TAP Group Achievement Award.
In years past, a number of USC’s top chemistry faculty have won the Tolman Medal, including Arieh Warshel (2003), Olah (1991), Sidney Benson (1977) as well as the late Arthur Adamson (1966) and Anton Burg (1961).