George A. Olah, carbon compounds pathfinder, dies at 89

NEW YORK — George A. Olah, a Hungarian-born scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1994 for his study of the chemical reactions of carbon compounds, died on March 8 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 89.

His death was announced by the University of Southern California, where he had been a professor of chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science.


Dr. Olah’s advances in the understanding of hydrocarbons — molecules made of carbon and hydrogen — have been used in an array of applications, including the development of gasoline that burns more cleanly and the discovery of new drugs.

His work began at a Dow Chemical Co. research laboratory in southwest Ontario, where he, his wife, and a young son settled in 1957. They had fled their native Hungary a year earlier amid the turmoil of a failed uprising against Soviet rule there.

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Dow uses acid-catalyzed reactions to produce materials like styrene, a precursor of polystyrene plastic. Dr. Olah discovered “superacids,” which were trillions of times stronger than sulfuric acid. The superacids were crucial in his subsequent study of hydrocarbon chemistry.

Scientists hypothesized that hydrocarbon molecules were transformed by short-lived molecules called carbocations. But a carbocation appeared and disappeared so quickly — in a billionth of a second or less — that it was almost impossible to study. (Many chemists long believed that carbocations did not exist at all.)

Dissolved in certain superacids, however — Dr. Olah called them magic acids — carbocations do not immediately fall apart.


“You can isolate them and keep them stable in this media,” said G.K. Surya Prakash, a USC chemistry professor who leads the university’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute.

Dr. Olah was then able to study the structure and behavior of the carbocations.

“That was a major achievement in the ’60s and the ’70s,” said Prakash, who was a graduate student and then a longtime collaborator of Dr. Olah’s.

In presenting the Nobel to Dr. Olah in 1994, Salo Gronowitz, of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said, “Olah’s discovery resulted in a complete revolution for scientific studies of carbocations, and his contributions occupy a prominent place in all modern textbooks of organic chemistry.”

Along the way, Dr. Olah overturned scientific dogma that held that, in organic compounds, a carbon atom could bind to no more than four other atoms. He showed that in carbocations, a carbon atom could bond with five, six, or seven neighbors, Prakash said.

“These are weak bonds, but they’re still held together,” he said. “All of his ideas prevailed.”

Dr. Olah, who wrote nearly 1,500 scientific papers, held 160 patents in seven countries

After receiving his Nobel Prize, Dr. Olah, along with Prakash, worked on how to address the world’s energy needs and climate change challenges. But instead of embracing more typical approaches, like promoting nuclear or solar energy, Dr. Olah believed that the most promising alternative energy source was methanol.

Methanol, which can be burned as a fuel, is also known as “wood alcohol” because it was once commonly produced from the distillation of wood. But it can also be produced by carbon dioxide captured from the air.

“You have a fuel which is a renewable fuel,” Prakash said.

In recent years, Dr. Olah’s interest in methanol grew more fanciful. Methanol has been detected in the discs of dust around young stars, before the dust has coalesced into planets. In a paper published last year, he and his colleagues speculated that methanol was originally a basic ingredient that was converted into amino acids, nucleic acids, and other building blocks of biology.

“Maybe methanol also led to the origin of life,” Prakash said. “That was his passion for the past two years.”

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