In 1956, Edith Flanigen began working on the emerging technology of "molecular sieves," crystalline microporous structures with large internal void volumes and molecular-sized pores. These compounds can be used to purify and separate complex mixtures and catalyze or speed the rate of hydrocarbon reactions, and have widespread application in the petroleum refining and petrochemical industries. During her 42-year career at Union Carbide and UOP, Flanigen invented or co-invented over 200 novel synthetic materials, and made substantial contributions to the product development of zeolite Y, an aluminosilicate sieve used to make oil refining more efficient, cleaner, and safer. Her work with molecular sieves also led to innovative applications in water purification and environmental cleanup. Additionally, Flanigen invented a hydrothermal emerald synthesis process and pioneered the use of mid-infrared spectroscopy for analyzing zeolite structures.
Flanigen was born in Buffalo, New York. She received a B.A. from D'Youville College and an M.S. in inorganic-physical chemistry from Syracuse University in 1952. Flanigen is the holder of 108 U.S. patents. In 1992, she became the first woman to be awarded the Perkin Medal, America's top honor in applied chemistry.