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Hydrocarbon research garners Nobel prize.

For his studies of fleeting hydrocarbon reactions, organic chemist George A. Olah of the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles has won thie year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

While working at Dow Chemical Co. in 1962, Olah discovered that powerful superacids, trillions of times stronger than pure sulfuric acid, could capture fast-disappearing "carbocations" and stabilize them for hours. Normally existing for less than one-millionth of a second as "reaction intermediates" generated during the breakup of hydrocarbon molecules, the positively charged carbocations could, under the superacid's influence, be observed and analyzed in a way previously impossible.

As a result, researchers could do hydrocarbon chemistry with unprecedented precision and develop new classes of compounds, from leadfree gasolines to extra-strong plastics. "Olah's discovery completely transformed the scientific study of the elusive carbocations," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stated in announcing the award.

Prior to Olah's work, chemists had only postulated that carbon cations (positively charged ions) existed during hydrocarbon reactions. Olah's experiments showed a way to stop the action, so to speak, during the chemical transformations and observe step-by-step changes in detail.

Olah obtained his first results by mixing hydrogen fluoride with antimony pentafluoride to produce a superacid so strong it could pluck atoms from hydrocarbon molecules, leaving behind an alkyl cation -- a molecule normally too unstable to be studied. Using spectrometers and other analytical equipment, chemists not only confirmed its existence but studied in extensive detail its structure and ability to form bonds.

From his work, new varieties of hydrocarbon synthesis mushroomed. For instance, scientists learned to convert combustion-poor straight-chain hydrocarbons into cleaner-burning, highoctane branched hydrocarbon fuels. Superacid catalysis enabled chemists to "crack heavy oils and to liquefy coal under surprisingly mild conditions," the Nobel committee said.

Many recent efforts to produce more environmentally friendly fuels and plastics stem from Olah's research.

The Hungarian-born scientist, now 67, came to North America from Budapest in 1957 to become a senior researcher at Dow Chemical in Sarnia, Ontario. From 1965 to 1977, he taught at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, then moved to USC.
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Title Annotation:George A. Olah wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry for research on fleeting hydrocarbon reactions
Author:Lipkin, Richard
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Oct 22, 1994
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