George A. Olah gave the cations of carbon longer life

   The cations of the carbon compounds – carbocations – are common in the organic chemistry. They occur as extremely reactive and short-lived intermediates in chemical reactions. By giving them longer lives George A. Olah has made it possible to observe them directly.

Olah was one of many chemists who around 1960 were trying to find the conveted alkylcations. He caused the organic compound tertiary butylfluoride to react with the superacid antimonpentafluoride (SbF5) at -78oC. The result was the long-lived tertiary butyl cation he was able to study with NMR spectroscopy and ESCA. This was an extremely important breakthrough. Now the structure and dynamics of almost any carbocations could be studied.

NMR = Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (Nobel Prize 1952 and 1991)
ESCA = Electron Spectroscopy for Chemical Analysis (Nobel Prize 1981)

The picture shows Olah's spectra of the first alkylcations.

A modern NMR spectrometer with its superconducting magnet to the right, computer and other electronic equipment to the left. NMR spectra contain detailed information about the structure and dynamics of carbocations. NMR spectroscopy is also used for studying how carbocations rearrange to other cations.


To understand carbocations is to understand chemistry

When we know what carbocations look like and how they react it is possible to govern their reactions to form products we require, for instance a drug for intervening in one of life's many chemical processes. Olah's basic research has brought organic chemistry a great step forward. His development of novel synthesis methods and reagents has made new compounds available.

Olah's contributions to carbocation chemistry have also led to new industrial processes e.g. for the production of high-octane petrol.



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