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Changing America's History
Chemical Engineering

Women chemists have made significant contributions that have improved transportation. Inventions by women include nonreflecting glass, more efficient gasoline and jet fuel production, better tires, and airplane de-icing.

Edith Flanigen is one of the most inventive chemists of all time. She had a 42-year career at Union Carbide. In 1956, Flanigen began to work on the emerging technology of "molecular sieves," crystalline structures that contain molecule-sized pores. The compounds with their tiny pore sizes can be used to filter and break down crude oil during the refining process.

Flanigen's work made the production of Zeolyte Y (an alumino-silicate) commercially viable. Her molecular sieves have made gasoline production more efficient, cleaner, and safer worldwide. Flanigen's more recent work on alumino-phosphates has applications for lubricating oils. Other women chemists influenced today's transportation. Katherine Burr Blodgett invented "nonreflecting glass" using monomolecular coatings in 1938. Since then, the coating theory has been applied to the process that accelerates the de-icing of airplane wings, greatly improving aviation safety.

Stephanie Louise Kwolek, working for E.I. duPont in Buffalo, developed Kevlar, a polymer fiber five times stronger than an equivalent mass of steel. Originally developed as a reinforcement for rubber in radial tires, Kevlar is now used for sails, fiberoptic cables, and aviation parts.

Photo: Edith Flanigen

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