Wachs chosen to receive Olah Award


Israel Wachs will receive the Olah Award next spring in New Orleans.

Israel Wachs, the G. Whitney Snyder Professor of chemical engineering and a world-renowned expert in catalysis, has been chosen by the American Chemical Society to receive the George A. Olah Award in Hydrocarbon or Petroleum Chemistry.

The award will be presented by ACS’s Division of Petroleum Chemistry at the society’s Spring 2008 national meeting in New Orleans.

Wachs is the second consecutive member of the Lehigh faculty to win the Olah Award. Bruce Koel, professor of chemistry and vice provost for research, won the award in 2007. George Olah is the 1994 Nobel laureate in chemistry.

Wachs was cited for contributions over the past 30 years to the field of catalysis, which is the study of the process in which a chemical agent is employed to bring about or accelerate a chemical reaction.

Nominators also praised Wachs for his innovative and pioneering use of Raman spectroscopy, a technique used to study vibrational, rotational and other low-frequency modes in a physical or chemical system. The technique is named for the 1930 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics.

“For the past three decades,” wrote one nominator, “Wachs’s pioneering fundamental and applied contributions to selective oxidation catalysis have been continuously advancing this area of hydrocarbon chemistry. Selective oxidation catalysis represents the major route in upgrading hydrocarbons in the petroleum chemistry field with the majority of the reactions employing heterogeneous catalysts.”

In the area of selective oxidation catalytic reactions, said the nominator, Wachs is responsible for discovering and establishing the nature of catalytic active sites, surface reaction mechanisms, surface and overall kinetics, new reactions, new catalytic materials, novel environmental catalytic processes and more.

In recent research, Wachs has investigated the reactivity of metal-oxide catalysts at the extreme low end of the nanoscale. He and his group attached catalytic active sites of tungsten oxide to nanoparticles of titania measuring from 5 nm to less than 1 nm, which were in turn anchored on a substrate of silica. They found that the reactivity of the tungsten oxide increased as much as 100 times when it was attached to the tiniest titania particles.

Wachs, who joined the faculty in 1987, has supervised 20 Ph.D. students, a dozen M.S. students, a dozen undergraduates, and 16 post-doctoral scientists at Lehigh. In addition, he has co-supervised graduate students at Princeton University, the University of Texas, the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands and Sophia University in Japan. Wachs has published more than 300 technical articles, holds 35 U.S. patents, and is one of the most frequently cited researchers in his field.

Among Wachs’s many honors are the 2002 Clean Air Excellence Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2003, he received the Award for Industrial Innovation from ACS’s Southeast Region and the Catalysis and Reaction Engineering Practice Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. The Herman Pines Award from the Chicago Catalysis Club, given for research accomplishments in catalysis over a five-year period, followed in 2005.

These awards were given for a catalytic process invented by Wachs that converts waste gases from paper pulp mills into formaldehyde and other valuable chemicals. Wachs collaborated on that project with Georgia-Pacific Corp. and with Andrew Gibson ’52, a former process-improvement manager for the company.

--Kurt Pfitzer