Lasting fame for captor of fleeting ions

时间:2019-03-01 09:17:10166网络整理admin

By ROSIE MESTEL WHEN George Olah first described his discovery at a conference, a murmur of astonishment rippled through the audience. After the talk, the two most prominent scientists at the meeting took him aside and told him that his finding just could not be true. Last week, more than 30 years later, Olah won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his findings – that acids billions of times stronger than those in car batteries could stabilise a class of superunstable organic ions – chemicals that scientists were sure must exist, but had never been able to see. “It was a sensation, just a sensation,” said Paul Schleyer, a chemist at the Friedrick Alexander University at Erlangen in Germany, and a long-time friend, colleague and collaborator of Olah’s. “Imagine a roomful of the most prominent chemists gathered together for a conference and this relatively unknown industrial chemist comes and lays this bombshell.” Olah, now director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, had his breakfast interrupted by the 6 am call from Stockholm. “We all have certain dreams,” said Olah. “But nobody really seriously expects this.” Colleagues applauded the decision to give the prize to Olah. “We’ve been looking for this one for six or seven years,” said Henry Schaefer, director of the Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry at the University of Georgia in Athens. Olah’s findings provided an insight to the chemistry of hydrocarbons. At the time, the chemical reactions of hydrocarbons were poorly understood: chemists had to assume the existence of a series of extremely unstable, fleeting intermediates to make sense of the chemical reactions they observed. “Every Tom, Dick and Harry in chemistry had been invoking these things to explain all manner of chemical mechanisms – and yet none had ever been isolated for long enough to prove that they really existed at all,” said Schaefer. Then, in the 1960s, Olah discovered that these positively charged, fleeting intermediates – known as carbocations – could be created and kept stable in solutions of superstrong acids. This not only offered concrete proof that carbocations existed, it also enabled scientists to study the structure of different carbocations in detail, shedding light on all manner of chemical reactions. “It was pioneering work,” said Surya Prakash, associate professor at the Loker Institute, an ex-student of Olah who has worked with him for 20 years. Olah’s work created a vigorous new field of study to which he alone contributed more than a thousand research papers. But his findings also have important practical applications, which the Loker institute is pursuing. By using superacids to create carbocations from methane, it may one day be possible to make petrol from natural gas. And superacid-carbocation chemistry has already been used to create higher octane petrol, and break down heavy oils and tar. Born in Hungary in 1927, Olah had no interest in chemistry at school. “I was interested in history, many other things,” he said. Olah received his PhD at the Technical University of Budapest in 1949. In 1957, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, he and his wife fled to North America,