Library Articles

Edith Marie Flanigen, born in Buffalo, New York (1929), and recently retired (1994), is one of the most inventive chemists of all time. She has earned 102 U.S. patents for her innovations in the rather esoteric fields of petroleum research and product development.

After graduating as class president and valedictorian from D'Youville College in Buffalo, and after gaining an M.S. in Inorganic-Physical Chemistry from Syracuse University (1952), Flanigen began a forty-two year career in research at Union Carbide Corporation and UOP, a joint venture of Union Carbide and AlliedSignal. Her first area of expertise was the identification, extraction and purification of various silicone polymers (chemical compounds), which could then be used in chemical processes.

In 1956, Flanigen began working on "molecular sieves": crystal compounds with molecule-sized pores, that can be used to filter and separate the constituent parts of complex mixtures, and as "catalysts," substances that accelerate chemical reactions. In her career, Flanigen invented or developed over 200 different synthetic substances, the most important of which is "zeolite Y," a silicate sieve used to refine petroleum. Petroleum, or "crude oil," found in the earth, must be broken down into its parts (called "fractions") by a process called "catalytic cracking" before it can be used. Gasoline is only one of the lighter fractions of crude oil. Flanigen's zeolites are used as catalysts to optimize the conversion of crude oil to gasoline.

Flanigen's work is admittedly complex, but it has many practical benefits. First of all, her innovations have made the production of gasoline in the U.S. and around the world greater, cleaner, and safer. Secondly, her "sieves" are used in other processes, such as water purification and environmental clean-up. Finally, Flanigen's work has other commercial applications: for, she is the co-inventor of a synthetic emerald, produced and marketed by Union Carbide for a number of year. However unknown she may be to the general public, Edith Flanigen is deservedly a living legend to research chemists world-wide.