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George A. Olah, whose work won a Nobel Prize in chemistry and paved the way for more effective oil refining and ways of producing less polluting forms of gasoline, has died at age 89. (Gue Ruelas/Gus Ruelas)
George A. Olah, whose work won a Nobel Prize in chemistry and paved the way for more effective oil refining and ways of producing less polluting forms of gasoline, has died at age 89. (Gue Ruelas/Gus Ruelas)

Chemist George A. Olah began Nobel-winning work at Sarnia, Ont. lab Add to ...

George A. Olah, whose work won a Nobel Prize in chemistry and paved the way for more effective oil refining and ways of producing less polluting forms of gasoline, has died at age 89.

Dr. Olah died Wednesday at his Beverly Hills, Calif., home, according to the University of Southern California’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, of which he was founding director. No cause of death was provided.

Dr. Olah’s research brought him the 1994 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his groundbreaking study of the unstable carbon molecules known as carbocations.

“Distinguished professor George Olah was a true legend in the field of chemistry,” USC President C. L. Max Nikias said in a statement. “His pioneering research fundamentally redefined the field’s landscape and will influence its scholarly work for generations to come.”

The Hungarian government offered its condolences for Dr. Olah, who fled Hungary during a 1950s Soviet crackdown on dissent.

“The country has lost a great patriot and one of the most outstanding figures of Hungarian scientific life,” said Janos Lazar, chief of staff to Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Dr. Olah received the Nobel Prize for his work on superacids, research that led his observation of carbocations – an unstable, fleeting chemical species that he discovered how to stabilize long enough to study its properties.

He said there was no “eureka moment” and credited the find to long hours spent in his chemistry lab, usually starting before dawn and continuing late into the night.

He also singled out for praise his long-time USC collaborator Surya Prakash, who began working with Dr. Olah in the 1970s as a 20-year-old grad student and now leads the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute.

George Olah was born in Budapest, Turkey on May 22, 1927, the son of Julius Olah, a lawyer, and Magda Krasznai. He had no particular attraction to science in his early school years.

“My main interest was in the humanities, particularly history, literature, etc.,” he said in a statement published on the Nobel website. “I was [and still am] [an] avid reader and believe that getting attached too early to a specific field frequently shortchanges a balanced broad education.”

Instead he studied Latin for eight years as well as German, French and other languages. The son of a lawyer said he was fortunate to attend a school he called one of the best in Budapest.

It was at the Technical University of Budapest where his interest in science was finally piqued.

After earning a doctorate in organic chemistry, he went to work for the Central Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Science.

He was leading a research team there in 1956 when the Soviet Union cracked down on the country following the Hungarian Uprising of that year. He, his wife, their young son and most of his research team fled Hungary. The family stayed briefly in London before crossing the Atlantic in the spring of 1957 to settle in Canada, where they had relatives.

At the time, Michigan-based Dow Chemical was establishing a small research lab in Sarnia, Ont., and hired Dr. Olah and two of his Hungarian collaborators. During this period Dr. Olah carried out some of his initial work on stable carbocations.

In the spring of 1964, Dr. Olah was transferred to the company’s Eastern Research Laboratories in Framingham, Mass. The following year he began teaching at Cleveland’s Western Reserve University, and he eventually moved to USC in the late 1970s.

Honoured by numerous scientific societies as well as his native country, Dr. Olah authored or co-authored nearly two dozen books and published nearly 1,500 papers. He held 160 patents from seven countries, according to USC.

The university plans a campus celebration of his life at a later date.

He leaves his wife, Judith Olah, sons George and Ronald, and several grandchildren.

Associated Press with files from Globe staff

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