Olah, Scholtz Named to National Academy

George A. Olah, left, and Robert A. Scholtz

Photo/Jon Vidar

Nobel Prize winner George A. Olah, who holds a joint appointment at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and USC College, and Robert A. Scholtz, the Fred H. Cole Professor of Engineering in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, were among 65 newly elected members of the National Academy of Engineering announced in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 6.

This is the second year in a row that two engineers from USC have been elected to the academy, making USC one of only six schools in the nation with two or more elected faculty members per year. (In 2008, the engineers were USC Executive Vice President and Provost C. L. Max Nikias and USC Viterbi School Dean Yannis C. Yortsos.) Membership in the academy is the highest professional distinction that can be accorded an engineer.

The election of Olah and Scholtz brings the total number of USC Viterbi School academy members to 33.

“We are very proud that the academy is recognizing two of our faculty for their superb contributions,” Yortsos said. “NAE membership is an indicator of excellence and a testament to the impact of an individual’s scholarly work in the field.”

Olah, holder of the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Chair in Organic Chemistry, a USC Distinguished Professor and the founder/director of USC’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute was recognized for “contributions to the development of chemical technologies for environmentally favored and carbon-neutral energy conversion.”

One of the world’s preeminent scholars of hydrocarbon chemistry, Olah received the 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his achievements in superacids and his observations of carbocations, a fleeting chemical species long theorized to exist but never confirmed.

He devised a way to keep the transient carbocations around long enough to study their properties. What he found revolutionized the understanding of organic chemistry, leading to new discoveries and improvements in the production of gasoline, plastics and pharmaceuticals, to name a few.

His seminal contributions to the technologies of hyrdrocarbons and energy conversion led to the concept of the “methanol economy,” which has the potential of mitigating society’s reliance on fossil fuel sources for energy and materials.

Methanol and dimethyl ether, which can be produced from carbon dioxide using renewable sources of energy, are excellent combustion fuels and feedstocks for ethylene and propylene production. The chemistry behind the “methanol economy” is now being commercially developed.

Scholtz, who started the first university research program in ultra-wideband radio, was recognized for “contributions to the fields of ultra-wideband and spread-spectrum communications.”

A member of the USC Viterbi School faculty since 1963, Scholtz has spent the last decade studying applications of ultra-wideband brief signal pulses spread over a very wide band of the radio spectrum for imaging, data transmission and other tasks. His research interests range from spread-spectrum communications, ultra-wideband and impulse radio to pseudo-noise generators and communication networks.

In 2006, the first commercial applications of ultra-wideband technology, for short-range high bandwidth wireless data links, were introduced, thanks to his landmark research. Scholtz was also co-recipient that year of the IEEE Eric E. Sumner Award for “pioneering contributions to ultra-wide band communications science and technology.”