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PIONEER CHEMIST EDITH FLANIGEN RECEIVES
$100,000 LEMELSON-MIT LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
FOR INVENTION

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 materials.”

MOLECULAR SIEVES

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 research fellow.

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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INSPIRED GENERATIONS

Equally important as her discoveries, Flanigen has inspired generations of scientists to improve and explore new applications for molecular sieves.

“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.

NURTURING INVENTION

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 and innovation.”

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ABOUT THE $100,000 LEMELSON-MIT LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

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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