In Memoriam: Nobel Laureate George Olah, 89
A world-renowned Nobel laureate thanks to his pioneering work on superacids, George Olah revolutionized the understanding of organic chemistry. Photo courtesy of USC Media Relations.

In Memoriam: Nobel Laureate George Olah, 89

The lauded USC scientist, who helped shape the development of organic chemistry in the second half of the 20th century, played a major role in establishing USC as a notable center of advanced hydrocarbon chemistry and proposing the methanol economy.
BySusan Bell

Chemist George Olah, who won USC’s first Nobel prize, died at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., on March 8. He was 89.

Olah had a profound influence on the world of hydrocarbon chemistry and his discoveries had great application to everyday life: He helped pave the way for less-polluting gasoline, more-effective oil refining and several modern drugs.

At USC, he was Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Chair in Organic Chemistry and founding director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute at USC Dornsife.

“Distinguished Professor George Olah was a true legend in the field of chemistry. His pioneering research fundamentally redefined the field’s landscape, and will influence its scholarly work for generations to come,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “While Professor Olah was a world-renowned Nobel laureate and a giant in chemistry, he was also a beloved member of our Trojan Family. He will be deeply missed.”

USC Provost Michael Quick praised Olah’s influential scholarship, as well as his generosity. “He was benevolent,” Quick said. “When he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1994, he said that while it was personally rewarding, he believed it was also recognition of his past and present students and associates whose work didn’t often receive notice.”

Prize-winning legacy

Olah received the Nobel Prize for groundbreaking work on superacids and his observations of what are known as carbocations, a fleeting chemical species long theorized to exist, but never confirmed — until Olah devised a way to keep them around long enough to study their properties. What he found revolutionized the understanding of organic chemistry, leading to new discoveries, new fields of research and countless applications.

His discovery of how to make concentrated solutions of unusual hydrocarbon cations — using what he called “Magic Acids” — created an entire new field of chemistry of considerable theoretical and practical importance. The potent acids — billions or some cases even many trillions of times stronger than previously recognized “strong” acids such as concentrated sulfuric acid — can generate carbocations in solution that were previously thought to be impossible.

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George Olah (center), Surya Prakash and Katherine B. Loker at a 10-year anniversary reception held in October 2004, to celebrate Olah’s 1994 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Photo by Eva Emerson.

Olah also investigated whether a similar but more general approach could be used to produce what are called electrophiles. These are reagents — compounds causing chemical reactions — that are attracted to electrons and are highly reactive. This resulted in the development of the concept of superelectrophilic activation and the study of superelectrophiles.

His post-Nobel research focused not only on developing a promising new approach for solving long-range dependence on dwindling and nonrenewable fossil fuels, but also on mitigating global climate change caused by derived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. His novel approach — which he termed “the methanol economy” — was based on the use of methanol for energy storage as a convenient renewable liquid fuel to replace gasoline and diesel and as a feedstock for making petroleum-derived products.

“George Olah was a scientific giant with an enormous ability to absorb and judge information,” said Nobel laureate Arieh Warshel, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Biological Sciences, Biochemistry, and Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and Dana and David Dornsife Chair in Chemistry. “He never stopped creating and working: Even in the last year, he was completely involved in and excited about the methanol economy as a solution to the global energy problem and his new interest in the role of hydrocarbons in the origin of life, focusing on the exciting discovery of enormous amounts of such compounds in outer space. Olah told me that he felt that this is his greatest discovery, but he had so many world-changing discoveries that it is hard to judge. He was a great mentor and a wonderful friend always at the ready with great advice. We will greatly miss him.”

Origins of an influential career

The chemist never claimed to have had a eureka moment in his research that led to his Nobel Prize. Instead, he credited long hours of laboratory routine that typically began just after dawn and continued until 10 at night.

Upon winning the prize, he singled out for praise his longtime collaborator at USC Dornsife, Surya Prakash — George A. and Judith A. Olah Nobel Laureate Chair in Hydrocarbon Chemistry and professor of chemistry.

Prakash went to Case Western Reserve University in 1974 as a 20-year-old Ph.D. student to work with Olah and moved with him to USC in 1977 to help him establish the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute. In the years since, the institute has trained more than 300 scientists and has had countless patents and discoveries. Olah was instrumental to the institute’s tremendous growth.

“The chemistry George did was very original, but on top of that, he was a very kind and generous man,” said Prakash, who today leads the institute. “In addition to bringing great credit to the chemistry department, he was one of the original pioneers who made this a great university: He brought scientific excellence and creativity to USC.”

USC Dornsife Dean Amber D. Miller noted Olah’s passing as a loss both to USC Dornsife and to the field of chemistry. “He was an academic luminary whose passion for the process of discovery invigorated our university community over his four decades of service,” Miller said. “As we mourn his loss, we also remember with gratitude that his pioneering research continues to inform new pathways for a sustainable future.”

Olah was a firm believer in goal-oriented research, and his studies during his 40-year career at USC Dornsife were distinguished by their immense practical applications. He made significant contributions to the development of improved lead-free gasoline, cleaner high-octane gas and other promising nonpolluting fuels, as well as many chemical processes now used in pharmaceutical and industrial chemistry. His research also led to the development of a new kind of fuel cell, called the direct liquid methanol fuel cell, a highly efficient source of electricity.

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USC President Max C. L. Nikias (left) and George Olah in 2012 at Olah’s 85th birthday celebration. Photo by Rich Schmitt.

He developed new methods to convert existing natural gas (methane) directly and efficiently to methanol. However, the true methanol economy, Olah argued, will do without fossil fuels like natural gas, oil and coal, instead producing methanol by the reaction of hydrogen with carbon dioxide collected from exhaust gases from power plants and various industrial emissions. Eventually, Olah proposed, it will be possible to separate atmospheric carbon dioxide and convert it to methanol, enabling mankind to liberate itself from dependence on fossil fuels. This approach has the added advantage of diminishing the danger of global warming by removing and recycling the rising carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. The substantial energy required to generate the needed hydrogen for methanol production could come from safe nuclear power plants and alternatives such as sunlight, wind and geothermal sources, he noted.

“Professor Olah was an extraordinary scientist and human being, a towering figure in modern organic chemistry,” said Stephen Bradforth, divisional dean of natural sciences and mathematics, and professor of chemistry. “More than that, though, he was a passionate advocate for chemistry as a field; he believed in nurturing talented researchers and in using his unparalleled understanding of molecular behavior to pioneer alternative solutions for the global energy economy.”

The Renaissance man

Olah was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1927. He showed no interest in chemistry during his formative years. Instead, he followed a strict and demanding curriculum that heavily emphasized the humanities, including eight years of Latin and obligatory German and French.

That stayed with him later in life, when he became known in academic circles as a Renaissance man. “He was very well-read,” Prakash said. “He knew history, he knew philosophy. He appreciated music and art. He was a voracious reader.”

After high school, having survived the ravages of World War II in Budapest and perhaps cognizant of the difficulties of life in a small, war-torn country, he opted to study chemistry at the Technical University of Budapest. There he was particularly intrigued by organic chemistry, earning his doctoral degree in the subject and joining the faculty as assistant professor. 

Invited to join the newly established Central Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as head of the department of organic chemistry and associate scientific director in 1954, Olah established a small research group, which now included his wife, Judith Lengyel, whom he married in 1949. However, after the Soviet military crackdown on the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the future for Olah and his team looked bleak. Some 200,000 Hungarians fled their country in the final months of that year for a new life in the West. Olah, his wife and young son and much of his research group were among them.

Brief stays in England and Canada were followed by their major move — to the United States. Olah became a scientist with Dow Chemical Company, which had recently established a small research laboratory in Michigan.

At Dow, a major user of carbocationic chemistry, Olah began his initial work on stable carbocations. His work had practical significance, helping to improve some industrial processes, and he was promoted to company scientist, the highest research position without administrative responsibility.

The move to academe

In 1965, Olah joined Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, as a professor and department chair. There he was instrumental in merging the chemistry department with that of neighboring Case Institute of Technology in 1967. After 12 years in Cleveland, where his work earned him membership in the National Academy of Sciences, Olah moved to California to join USC. Some 14 members of his research group, with Prakash, accompanied him. He embraced the challenge of building up USC’s chemistry department — and he and his family fell in love with the Southern California lifestyle.

Aware of the need for a long-range program of basic research and graduate education in the field of hydrocarbon chemistry, Olah became founding director of the Hydrocarbon Research Institute, which opened its doors in 1979, thanks to a generous donation from Donald Loker and his wife, Katherine Loker ’40. The institute was renamed in honor of the couple in 1984.

Olah was determined that receiving the Nobel Prize would not significantly affect his life nor his research. He felt he was successful in that goal, noting that with the help of dedicated younger colleagues and associates and by close collaboration with Prakash, he was able not only to continue his research but also to extend it into new and challenging areas.

Honors and prizes

He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and Canadian Royal Society and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Italian and Hungarian academies of sciences, and the European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities.

In his native Hungary, he received awards ranging from the Semmelweis Budapest Award to the Széchenyi Grand Prize of Hungary. Olah also received honorary Doctor of Science degrees from the University of Sopron, Hungary and University of Munich, among others.

Besides the Nobel, his many prizes included the 2013 Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in Alternative Fuels for Transportation; the Priestley Medal from the American Chemical Society in 2005; and the USC Associates Award for Creativity in Research and Scholarship in 1985.

During his career, Olah authored or co-authored 20 books and close to 1,500 scientific publications. He held 160 patents from seven countries, including four for the transformation of natural gas into gasoline-range hydrocarbons.

Mark Thompson, Ray R. Irani, Chairman of Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Chair in Chemistry and chair of the Department of Chemistry, spoke of his sorrow and that of his colleagues at Olah’s passing. “George had a long, distinguished and influential career at USC,” said Thompson, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering and materials science. “The chemistry department, USC and the scientific community as a whole have lost one of the giants, and he will be sorely missed.”

Olah is survived by his wife, Judith Olah; their sons, George Olah Jr. (a graduate of USC Marshall School of Business) and Ronald Olah (a graduate of the Keck School of Medicine of USC); grandsons Peter Olah (a graduate of USC Marshall) and Justin Olah; and granddaughter Kaitlyn Olah.

Details of a USC campus celebration of George Olah’s life are pending.