PIONEER CHEMIST EDITH FLANIGEN RECEIVES
$100,000 LEMELSON-MIT LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 21, 2004) — Edith Flanigen’s
pioneering work in chemistry and materials science over the past
four decades has helped make the petroleum refinement process more
efficient, cleaner and safer.
Flanigen will receive the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement
Award this Friday during the 10th annual Lemelson-MIT Awards Ceremony.
The award recognizes inventors for their cumulative bodies of work
and their contributions to technological progress and invention.
This year’s ceremony is being held at the National Academy
of Sciences in Washington, D.C. It is the capstone of the Lemelson-MIT
Program’s first-ever Invention Assembly, a gathering of professional
inventors and academics who will discuss ways and recommend policies
to preserve an inventive culture in the United States.
“Many people may not know about Edith Flanigen’s discoveries,
but her inventiveness and creativity have greatly affected everyone’s
life,” said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT
Program. “Dr. Flanigen’s work is outstanding materials
science and engineering. Her discoveries have resulted in more than
100 patents and have revolutionized the world of molecular sieve
Flanigen began her distinguished career in 1952 as a research
chemist at Union Carbide in Tonawanda, N.Y. Flanigen and her two
sisters all worked at Union Carbide at a time when few women were
making strides in the sciences. She eventually became the first
woman to hold the company’s highest technical position—senior
Flanigen’s most important work led to the development of
a new generation of molecular sieves, which are porous crystals
that can separate molecules on the basis of size. They are used
commercially in petroleum refining and petrochemical processes to
reduce energy costs and industrial waste. They are also used to
make certain types of motor oil and ethylene and propylene—key
elements in many plastics. Flanigen and coworkers discovered a large
number of novel structures and compositions of molecular sieves,
which enabled their use in a wider range of applications. Molecular
sieves are now used in everything from converting crude oil into
gasoline to cleaning up nuclear waste.
Flanigen discovered the first practical way to manufacture zeolite
Y, now one of the most commonly produced molecular sieves used to
make gasoline and jet fuel commercially feasible. “To go from
discovery of a new material, to scale it up to reasonable quantity,
to commercialize the application is a big stretch,” she said.
“I worked out the process that went from the laboratory to
the final manufacturing.”
Flanigen also coinvented a material called silicalite, which is
widely used in environmental clean-up applications to selectively
adsorb organic compounds.
Additionally, she developed a synthetic emerald that was designed
for use in masers—a predecessor to the laser that was based
on microwaves instead of light. Though lasers eventually had greater
commercial implications, Union Carbide’s Linde division still
found a use for Flanigen’s synthetic emerald. “They
actually developed a line of jewelry called the Quintessa Collection
that featured the hydrothermal emerald that we had developed and
patented,” she said.
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Equally important as her discoveries, Flanigen has inspired generations
of scientists to improve and explore new applications for molecular
“Our discovery of the new generation of molecular sieves
showed the inorganic materials world there was a lot to do. Once
we published that work and it was patented, everyone working in
the field began to also be more creative and to generate new compositions
and new structures,” she said.
“Edith mentored and inspired countless young scientists
within Union Carbide and UOP, as well as throughout the world in
academia and industry,” Professor Geoffrey Ozin said. Ozin
is now the Canada Research Chair in Materials Chemistry and University
Professor at the University of Toronto. “Her work strongly
influenced my research direction at a key point in my academic career.
She was a great teacher and mentor,” he said.
As part of her acceptance of the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime
Achievement Award, Flanigen will participate in a Congressional
briefing about the future of scientific exploration and invention
in the United States. The briefing is one of several events during
the Lemelson-MIT Program’s first-ever Invention Assembly,
a gathering of professional inventors and academics who will discuss
ways and recommend policies to preserve an inventive culture in
the United States.
“The growth of the United States has largely been based on
inventions. And our prosperity has largely been based on inventions,”
Flanigen said. “Inventiveness starts long before children
go to school. Parents and teachers really need to get children curious
about how things work and how to make them better. I don’t
see that students today are getting anything in the normal curriculum,
including the sciences, that really stimulates curiosity, creativity
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ABOUT THE $100,000 LEMELSON-MIT LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT
The $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes
the nation’s most talented inventors and innovators. It promotes
living role models in the fields of science, engineering, medicine
and entrepreneurship in the hope of encouraging future generations
to follow their examples.
Other distinguished inventors who have previously received the
Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award include Ruth Rogan Benerito,
inventor of easy-care cotton; Raymond Damadian, inventor of the
first Magnetic Resonance (MR) Scanning Machine; Al Gross, inventor
of the walkie-talkie and pager; and Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of
Kevlar®, a material used in products ranging from bullet-proof
vests to airplanes.
ABOUT THE LEMELSON-MIT PROGRAM
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the Lemelson-MIT Program
aims to raise the stature of inventors and provide resources and
inspiration to make invention and innovation more accessible to
today’s youth. It accomplishes this mission through outreach
activities and annual awards, including the world’s largest
prize for invention—the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.
Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the world’s most prolific inventors,
and his wife, Dorothy, founded the Lemelson-MIT Program in 1994
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is funded by The
Lemelson Foundation, a private philanthropy committed to honoring
the contributions of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs, and
to inspiring ingenuity in others. More information on the Lemelson-MIT
Program is online at http://web.mit.edu/invent.
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