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George Olah

(1927 - )

George Olah is a Jewish American chemist and the 1994 Nobel Prize laureate for chemisty.

Olah (born May 22, 1927) was born in Budapest, Hungary, and educated at the Gymnasium of the Piarist Fathers. After surviving the last months of World War II in hiding in Budapest, he graduated in chemistry from the Budapest Technical University in 1954. He worked in the Central Chemical Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences until the failed uprising, when he left Hungary in December 1956 first for London, where he was sympathetically received, and in 1957 for the United States.

He worked initially in Sarnia, Ontario, and subsequently in Framingham, Massachusetts, for Dow Chemical. In 1965 he joined Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and later became chairman of its chemistry department when it merged with that of Case Institute of Technology. In 1977 he moved to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles to head its newly established Loker Institute of Hydrocarbon Research, a center for research and graduate training. He was director of research and Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Distinguished Professor of Chemistry.

Olah's initial research concerned carbocation, the process by which hydrocarbons, consisting of carbon and hydrogen, become positively charged. However the instability of these short-lived intermediate products made them very difficult to study. He faced formidable practical difficulties in impoverished post-war Hungary and scientific scepticism. However, he was able to pursue this research after he joined Dow Chemicals. He succeeded in preparing a wide range of carbocations that were sufficiently stable for detailed analysis by using extremely strong "superacids." His findings launched a very active field of research which led to the synthesis of many new, more complex hydrocarbons. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1994 for his work on carbocations.

His research has greatly influenced the study of bond making and breaking in organic chemistry and the development of "superelectrophiles" with increased reactivity. His findings also have practical applications of major importance for hydrocarbon technology, which he continued to explore at the Loker Institute. These include the more efficient utilization and extraction of fossil fuels and the recycling of carbon dioxide into useful products while reducing the build-up of carbon products in the atmosphere. Other projects include the conversion of methane and methanol into fuels and the production of new materials for use in electrical engineering, optics, and biomedical devices. He was the author or co-author of many standard texts on these subjects. His many honors include election to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (1976), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2002), and the American Philosophical Society (2002), and the award of the Einstein Medal of the Russian Academy of Sciences (2002) and the Priestley Medal of the American Chemical Society (2005).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved; Picture: Wikimedia Commons