Edith Flanigen

Zeloite: it’s not just a great Scrabble word; it’s also a type of microporous mineral with many uses, as shown by this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Edith Flanigen. Flanigen was born in 1929 in Buffalo, New York. In high school, she and her two sisters were so inspired by their chemistry teacher that all three went on to receive graduate degrees in chemistry. 

After receiving a Master’s degree in inorganic physical chemistry from Syracuse University, Edith took a job at the Union Carbide, an chemical production company. After two decades of work, she became the first woman at Union Carbine to be named a corporate research fellow and, later, a senior corporate research fellow. Later in her career, she was transferred to Union Carbine’s sister company, Universal Oil Products (UOP), where she became a full research fellow before retiring in 1994 (although she continued to serve as a consultant for many years). 

Over the course of her career, Flanigen invented over 200 synthetic materials, but she is best known for one specific material, zeolite Y. Zeolites are minerals containing alumina and silica connected to form a porous structure - depending on their size and shape, the holes trap particular molecules while letting other molecules flow through. This “molecular sieve” property makes zeolites useful for a variety of applications including water purifiers. Additionally, zeolites can serve as catalysts (speeding up chemical reactions) by trapping molecules within the material’s “cages,” encouraging them in interact.

Zeolites occur naturally as byproducts of volcanic eruptions, but these natural zeolites contain impurities and have inconsistent pore sizes that limit their usefulness. Flanigen took inspiration from these natural products to design and make synthetic zeolites – using her knowledge of chemistry, she modified the synthesis process to produce zeolites with different properties for different applications. Zeolite Y, for example, found widespread use in petroleum refinement.

In addition to over 100 patents, Flanigen has received many honors. To name just a few: In 1992, she became the first woman to receive the prestigious Perkin Metal; in 2004, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame; and in 2012 she received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. In 2014, an Edith Flanigen Award was instigated by Humboldt University of Berlin – this annual award is given to early-stage female scientists in Flanigen’s honor.

Photo credit: Lee Balgerman


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