USC chemist wins national award for lifetime achievements in chemistry

03/15/05

Nobel laureate George A. Olah, Ph.D., of Los Angeles, Calif., will be honored March 15 by the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society, for his pioneering contributions to chemistry over 50 years, including his groundbreaking work on hydrocarbons. He will receive the 2005 Priestly Medal, the Society’s highest honor, at its national meeting in San Diego.

“I have spent a lifetime in research and teaching of chemistry, which I always considered a bridge between the different branches of science,” remarked Olah, an organic chemistry professor and director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute at the University of Southern California, in an article in the March 14 issue of Chemical & Engineering News, the Society’s weekly newsmagazine. “I am passionate about science and proud to be a chemist.”

His work on hydrocarbon chemistry has led to improvements in lead-free gasoline, cleaner high-octane gas and insights into chemical processes used in pharmaceutical and industrial chemistry. Olah’s work has also led to the development of a new, highly efficient fuel cell called the direct liquid methanol fuel cell. More recently, his work has focused on developing cleaner, more environmentally friendly fuels from methanol.

Olah’s use of extremely powerful acids to prepare long-lived carbocations, or positively charged hydrocarbons, facilitated the study of these previously elusive, highly-active chemical structures, leading to new insights into their structure and reactivity. These insights have provided an important foundation for advancements in hydrocarbon chemistry that are used in the chemical industry today. Work in this area led to Olah’s receipt of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Born in Budapest Hungary, Olah later immigrated to Canada, where he led a successful career in industry, and eventually came to the United States. He began his distinguished academic career in the U.S. at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and moved to USC in 1977. Now, at age 77, he continues to remain active, having guided more than 200 research associates over his distinguished career.

The Priestly award and its gold medallion are named for Joseph Priestly, who reported the discovery of oxygen in 1774. The American Chemical Society has recognized groundbreaking chemists with the annual award since 1923, when it conveyed the first Priestly Medal to Ira Remsen, the chemist credited with bringing laboratory research to the American university.

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