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George Olah, USC scientist who won Nobel Prize in chemistry, dies at 89

George Olah, a USC chemist and Nobel laureate who found new ways to study previously imperceptible stages in hydrocarbon-related chemical reactions, has died at his Beverly Hills home at age 89.

The Hungarian-born scientist’s research, which earned USC its first Nobel in 1994, fueled the advancement of cleaner-burning gasoline, improved oil refining and even led to the creation of new drugs.

“George Olah is one of the greatest chemists of the last century and this century,” said Surya Prakash, a USC organic chemist and Olah’s former graduate student who became his collaborator for about 43 years.

Olah, remembered as a giant in his field, studied carbocations: positively charged hydrocarbons that form during the intermediate steps of some chemical reactions but are so fleeting (lasting only nanoseconds, in some cases) that it was thought to be virtually impossible to study them.

The chemist realized he could use extremely harsh acids, called superacids, to stabilize the carbocations long enough to use spectroscopic methods to study their properties. The discovery led to a boom in the exploration of these elusive molecules. His work also led to new methods to convert “straight-chain” hydrocarbons into molecules with branched structures — which resulted in higher octane numbers and cleaner-burning fuel.

Later, Olah developed the idea of a methanol economy as an alternative to one based on fossil fuels. The plan: to draw down carbon dioxide (a single-carbon gas) and turn it into methanol (a single-carbon alcohol), thus creating a renewable fuel and reducing greenhouse gas in the atmosphere at the same time.

His research paved the way for a new kind of methanol-based fuel cell that produced electricity with high efficiency. A renewable methanol plant in Iceland that converts carbon dioxide into the fuel is also named after him.

More recently, he became interested in methanol found in space, exploring in papers with Prakash whether the molecule could have been one of the key molecules involved in the origin of life.

Olah, who was born in Budapest on May 22, 1927, showed little interest in science in his youth: His studies were heavy on the humanities, including German, French and Latin.

“I was (and still am) an avid reader and believe that getting attached too early to a specific field frequently shortchanges a balanced broad education,” Olah wrote in an autobiographical article for the Nobel Prize website.

“He was a renaissance man,” Prakash said. “He knew history, he knew philosophy, he was widely read. He would read books — thick books — in one sitting.” That sensibility for the arts seemed to rub off on his science, he added.

“Organic chemistry is a very artistic science,” Prakash explained. “You can take all these atoms and create new types of molecules by just putting it together in different permutations and combinations — and he was fantastic at that.”

Olah, as the scientist himself put it, “grew up between two world wars” and was 18 when World War II ended in 1945. As the Russians moved in to “liberate” the country, he would pull bodies out of the wreckage of bombed homes to ensure that the victims received a proper burial, his son George John Olah said.

Witness to the devastation in war-ravaged Hungary and cognizant of the opportunities that chemistry had to offer, Olah enrolled in the Technical University of Budapest. He quickly dove into organic chemistry — and, soon after marrying Judith Lengyel in 1949, enrolled her in chemistry courses as well (to her surprise). She went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s in chemistry and worked with Olah until her retirement.

“From my point of view, for husband and wife to closely understand each other’s work and [perhaps] even work together was most desirable,” he wrote.

Forced to flee after the Soviet military crackdown during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the family ended up in England and then Canada before finally landing in the United States. He worked at Dow Chemical Co. before moving in 1965 to what would become Case Western Reserve University. Prakash joined him as a doctoral candidate at the Cleveland university in 1974, and moved with him to USC three years later to help him establish the university’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute.

“He trained almost 300 coworkers and our institute was a mini-United Nations,” said Prakash, who now heads the institute. “He fervently believed that science has to be global — that’s how science was done. He was basically a global citizen in many ways. He believed in collaboration.”

Olah’s son George remembered his father as exceedingly honest and upright, with 6-foot-5 frame that only seemed to heighten “a towering personality.”

“He was a great father,” Olah said. “I’m a product of the ’60s and I was sort of a rebellious kid and even though he was this intellectual, he was somehow able to relate to me.”

Olah was remembered as a benevolent mentor, one always willing to share credit.

“He was a great mentor, very supportive of his students, very generous, and he always shared the credit, even the Nobel Prize,” Prakash said.

Olah, who died Wednesday, is survived by his wife, Judith; sons George and Ronald and three grandchildren, Peter, Justin and Kaitlyn.

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