"I am proud of having started my career in these laboratories"

Academician and Nobel laureate George Olah, who was also an honorary doctor of the BME and one of the leading chemists of the 20th century, has passed away at age 90.

The title of this article is a quotation from the Nobel laureate George Oláh, who wrote to greet his former school in a letter he sent in 2014 for the anniversary of the Department of Organic Chemistry and Technology. “Since I studied under Géza Zemplén, I could call myself the scientific grandson of Emil Fischer, even though I got far from the field of the Fischer-Zemplén school. Everything I have learnt at the Technical University of Budapest served me well all my life. I wish you and your students great success. I am confident that the traditions of the Hungarian organic chemistry will develop further on the basis of the past.”

The former student, then teacher and research professor of the Technical University was born in 1927 in Budapest, and graduated at the Piarist High School. After he graduated at the Technical University, he started his career at the Department of Organic Chemistry as the research assistant of Géza Zemplén. Initially, the scientist experimented with aggressive fluorochemicals, and he is credited with the first reconstruction of the “CH” building of the university.

In an interview George Olah said that in the post-war period he experimented with highly dangerous chemicals like boron trifluoride and hydrogen fluoride, which were sent by a famous German professor. Professor Zemplén did not want those chemicals in the laboratory, so he “banished” the future Nobel laureate to a half-collapsed balcony with all his experiments. Later, this famed loggia was covered, so they could use it in winter as well.

Professor George Olah has always visited his alma mater when he came to Budapest, and he always spoke with sweet nostalgia about his former laboratory which now operates as a modern facility.

The researcher, who got his PhD degree in 1949, started working at the Central Research Institute of Chemistry of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences after conducting researches at the Technical University for several years. In 1956, he left his home country with his family. Between 1957 and 1964, he worked in Canada, and later in the United States as a researcher of the Dow Chemical. After that he started teaching at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. In 1977, he became a professor at the University of Southern California, and became the director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute. Later, eleven different universities award him an honorary doctorate.
His scientific activities include a large number of scientific publications, monographs and patents. George Olah was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States. In 2005, the American Chemical Society awarded him the Priestley Medal.

The professor's scientific results in the research of carbocations and electron-deficient particles revealed a new approach. His discoveries made during the electrophilic activation of the carbon–carbon bonds and the carbon-hydrogen bonds became the basis of new, more modern carbon-hydrogen chemical processes. The methods developed by George Olah made it possible to create and monitor stable, long-lived carbocation particles. Because of his results achieved in these researches, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994.

In recent years, the so-called Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC), developed under the leadership of George Olah, has been in the centre of interest of the world of science. This invention could be the basis of the replacement of traditional energy sources.

Even from overseas, George Olah constantly kept in touch with his Hungarian colleagues including the researchers and teachers of the University of Technology. In 1990, he was elected as an honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In 2001, he received the Corvin Chain Award, and in 2002 he was awarded the Bolyai Prize. In 2006, he received the Hungarian Order of Merit Grand Cross Star, and in the same year he became an honorary citizen of Budapest. In 2011, he was awarded the Széchenyi Grand Prize “for his worldwide respected researches and achievements, for his publications in monographs and books which are now considered classics, for his scientific work carried out to develop the science of chemistry, for his practical application of his research results, and for his lifelong career that became a model for the new generations of scientists.”

The PhD School of the Faculty of Chemical Technology and Biotechnology at the BME was named after George Olah (George Olah PhD School), and the George Olah National High School Chemistry Competition also bears his name.

“It is no coincidence that we named this competition after George Olah” said Ferenc Faigl, the dean of the Faculty of Chemical Technology and Biotechnology of the BME. He addressed this sentence to those high school students who have gathered in the “CH” building just a few days ago to have a battle of wits in the finals of the National High School Chemistry Competition. “Our former colleague, George Olah, started his career on the second floor of this building. It was here where he started to research those superacids which eventually won him the Nobel Prize. We are very proud of him, and we are even more proud of the fact that he always came to us and met with the students until his health allowed it.”

The Hungarian Chemical Society, the BME VBK Vegy-Érték Tehetségpont and the Faculty of Chemical Technology and Biotechnology of the BME all contributed in the organization of the competition, while the avid students of the Albert Szent-Györgyi Technical College helped to conduct it.

Let us finish this article with another quotation from George Olah that he wrote in his letter (mentioned in the introduction) for the great white hopes of chemistry: “For the young ones, the difficult economic situation in Hungary and elsewhere in the world may seem hopeless, but my generation has gone through much more difficult times, and yet we managed to get along. I only want to say to the freshly graduated chemists that our profession is still greatly needed and always will be needed everywhere in the world. If you work hard and stay persistent, you will manage to start your career.”


Photos: History of Science Archive of the BME OMIKK