Scientists » Chemists » GEORGE A. OLAH
George A. Olah is a Hungarian American chemist who won the 1994 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Best known for the research which led to the isolation of the positively charged, electron-deficient fragments of hydrocarbons known as carbocations (or carbonium ions), he is also much respected for his work in the methanol economy. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he is also the recipient of the Priestley Medal and F.A. Cotton Medal for Excellence in Chemical Research of the American Chemical Society. Born in Budapest, Hungary, in the late 1920s, he grew up witnessing the horrors of the World War I which ravaged his nation. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution broke out when he was a young man and his family temporarily moved to England before shifting to Canada. Upon accepting a position as a research scientist at the Dow Chemical Company in Canada, he began his pioneering work on carbocations. After several years of working in the chemical industry where he also helped to improve some industrial processes, he moved to academics with a position at Case Western Reserve University. He eventually joined the faculty of the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, where he later became director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute. Even though he had begun his breakthrough research decades earlier, it was only during the 1990s that he achieved much international acclaim for his work.
He earned his doctorate in 1949 and taught at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics until 1954. He was then invited to join the newly established Central Chemical Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1954.
Around this time he was also able to establish a small research group in organic chemistry, housed in temporary laboratories of an industrial research institute. The research group was performing well but a political situation disrupted their work.
In October 1956, Hungary revolted against the Soviet rule and the revolution turned out to be a very violent and turbulent one. There was much bloodshed and loss of life and Budapest was left ravaged by the political upheavals. In such a grim situation, thousands of Hungarians—including Olah and his family—fled their homeland to seek a better life in the West.
He first went to England for a short while before moving to Canada where he became a research scientist at the Dow Chemical Company in 1957. The company also hired two of Olah’s original Hungarian Collaborators, including Steven Kuhn.
It was during his years at Dow that he began his pioneering work on carbocations. Dow was a major user of carbocationic chemistry and Olah’s work also had practical significance and helped to improve some industrial processes.
In 1964, he was transferred to Dow's Eastern Research Laboratories in Framingham where he continued his work. He changed his job in 1965, taking up the position of a professor at the Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where he also handled the responsibility of becoming the Department Chairman.
George A. Olah moved to the University of Southern California in 1977, where he became director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute in 1980. Over the recent years, he has shifted the focus of his research from hydrocarbons and their transformation into fuel to the methanol economy.
The Olah family has formed an endowment fund in his name—the George A. Olah Endowment—which grants annual awards to outstanding chemists. The American Chemical Society selects and administers the awards.
Best known for his work on carbocations, George A. Olah successfully isolated the positively charged, electron-deficient fragments of hydrocarbons (carbocations or carbonium ions) through the use of superacids and ultracold solvents. His pioneering research led to the development of a new branch of organic chemistry.
George Andrew Olah was born as Oláh György in Budapest, Hungary, on May 22, 1927 to Magda (Krasznai) and Julius Oláh, a lawyer. He received a typical middle-class upbringing and attended a Gymnasium (a combination of junior and senior high school) at one of the best schools in Budapest, the high school of Budapesti Piarista Gimnazium (Scolopi fathers).
As a young boy, he was more interested in history and the humanities rather than science. His school years were marred by war which ravaged the country though he successfully managed to complete high school amidst the politically chaotic and violent environment.
Having developed an interest in chemistry during his high school years, he enrolled at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics to study the subject. He was especially intrigued by organic chemistry.
He later became a research assistant to Professor Geza Zemplen, a senior professor of organic chemistry who had established a reputed school in Hungary. Olah’s experience of working with Zemplen was an enriching one.
George A. Olah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1994 "for his contribution to carbocation chemistry."
In 2001, he was honored with the Arthur C. Cope Award.
The Priestley Medal, the highest honor conferred by the American Chemical Society (ACS) which is awarded for distinguished service in the field of chemistry, was bestowed upon Olah in 2005.