It is with great sadness that we heard of the news of the passing of Prof. George Olah of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute at USC. Prof. Olah was the Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Chair in Organic Chemistry and founding director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute.
In addition to receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1994, Prof. Olah was also the recipient of the ACS Priestly Medal in 2005 as well as the Southern California Section’s Richard C. Tolman Medal in 1991.
Prof. Olah’s post-Nobel research focused not only on developing a promising new approach for solving long-range dependence on dwindling and nonrenewable fossil fuels, but also on mitigating global climate change caused by derived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. His novel approach — which he termed “the methanol economy” — was based on the use of methanol for energy storage as a convenient renewable liquid fuel to replace gasoline and diesel and as a feedstock for making petroleum-derived products.He made significant contributions to the development of improved lead-free gasoline, cleaner high-octane gas and other promising nonpolluting fuels, as well as many chemical processes now used in pharmaceutical and industrial chemistry. His research also led to the development of a new kind of fuel cell, called the direct liquid methanol fuel cell, a highly efficient source of electricity.
He developed new methods to convert existing natural gas (methane) directly and efficiently to methanol. However, the true methanol economy, Olah argued, will do without fossil fuels like natural gas, oil and coal, instead producing methanol by the reaction of hydrogen with carbon dioxide collected from exhaust gases from power plants and various industrial emissions. Eventually, Olah proposed, it will be possible to separate atmospheric carbon dioxide and convert it to methanol, enabling mankind to liberate itself from dependence on fossil fuels. This approach has the added advantage of diminishing the danger of global warming by removing and recycling the rising carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. The substantial energy required to generate the needed hydrogen for methanol production could come from safe nuclear power plants and alternatives such as sunlight, wind and geothermal sources, he noted.
Prof. Olah is survived by his wife, Judith, and his sons, George and Ronald. Details of a USC campus celebration of Olah’s life are pending.