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U of U Chemist Wins National Award for Petroleum Refining Discoveries

March 5, 2003 — Peter J. Stang of Salt Lake City will be honored March 25 by the world’s largest scientific society for discovering and studying new kinds of molecules, knowledge the petroleum industry can use to turn crude oil into useful products more efficiently.

He will receive the 2003 George A. Olah Award in Hydrocarbon or Petroleum Chemistry from the American Chemical Society at its national meeting in New Orleans.

“We’re in the fundamental business — we look at new methods of making things,” said Stang, a chemistry professor and dean of the University of Utah’s College of Science.

As one of his early accomplishments in nearly 40 years in research, Stang and his research team in 1969 reported making vinyl carbocations. These unstable structures, the configurations that reacting molecules pass through as they change from starting materials to products, only last fractions of seconds. But their shape, electrical charge and other properties help determine what form a reaction’s products will assume.

Petroleum refining proceeds via carbocations, for example, and understanding the intermediates helps petroleum companies tailor-make products that range from high-ocane gasoline to starting materials for plastics. Stang was at the forefront of revealing the three-dimensional chemistry of vinyl carbocations.

In the last decade, Stang has specialized in self-assembly — molecules that, mimicking nature, can build themselves up from a mixture of pre-designed building blocks. In 1999, in what a colleague described in nominating him for the award as “a real tour de force,” Stang announced a cage-like structure assembled from 50 customized pieces. The compound mimics many properties of zeolites, minerals used in petroleum refining, and has the potential to redefine the industry.

Stang said he remembered being fascinated by chemistry by the time he was a teenager, growing up in Hungary: “In those days, you could walk right into a pharmacy and buy all kinds of chemical supplies for your own experiments,” he recalled.

The organic chemist received his undergraduate degree from DePaul University in 1963 and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1966. Stang is also a member of the ACS divisions of fluorine and organic chemistry.

The George A. Olah Award in Hydrocarbon or Petroleum Chemistry is named after the Nobel Prize-winning chemist and is sponsored by the George A. Olah Endowment.