US chemist wins Nobel for work on magic acids

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The Independent Online
ACIDS that are a billion billion times stronger than 100 per cent sulphuric acid have won this year's Chemistry Nobel Prize for a Hungarian- born American scientist.

The Physics prize was won by an American and a Canadian for research that used subatomic particle beams from early nuclear reactors to probe the atomic structure of solids and liquids.

Each prize is worth 7 million Swedish kronor (about pounds 600,000).

George A Olah, 67, of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, used the superstrong 'magic acids' to create electrically charged organic molecules known as 'carbocations'. Chemists had previously believed that these could exist only as shortlived intermediaries during a chemical reaction, but Professor Olah was able to isolate them for detailed analysis. The process has been developed to liquefy coal and to 'crack' heavy mineral oils.

Bertram N Brockhouse, 76, of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and Clifford G Shull, 79, who works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will share the Physics award for their work, which has had applications ranging from the magnets in hi-fi systems to cleaner exhausts for motor cars.

The primitive nuclear reactors built in the late Forties produced huge quantities of subatomic particles called neutrons. Shull and Brockhouse realised that these particles could be used as delicate probes of the latticework arrangement of atoms in solid materials and of the way that the atoms vibrate within the lattice. In addition, they were able to probe the magnetic properties of materials, opening the way to the development of compact, highly efficient magnets.

Professor Stephen Lovesey, of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, said: 'I am delighted for both of them. In his heyday during the early Fifties, Bert Brockhouse simply dominated a whole slew of developments in the subject.'

According to Professor Lovesey: 'Shull is known for his work on determining magnetic structures. To understand why copper is not magnetic but iron is, you have to know their (atomic) structure and how the electrons are distributed and that is where Shull focused his early work. That is the bedrock of our current understanding of magnetic materials.'

Professor Shull, who retired from MIT eight years ago, did much of his work in collaboration with the late E O Wollan, but Nobel prizes cannot be awarded posthumously. 'My biggest regret is that my former colleague is no longer alive to share this honour with me,' Professor Shull said.

Professor Olah did not invent superacids, but he made scientifically creative use of them. According to Dr Tony Kirby, of the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge University: 'Everybody knows about him and has heard him talk. He is one of those larger- than-life characters who came out of Hungary after 1956.'

One of the fascinating quirks of the magic acids that featured in Professor Olah's research, according to Dr Kirby, is that 'you can put almost any hydrocarbon into magic acid and you get 15 per cent admantane - which has a diamond-like structure'.