History of Synthetic Polymers: Part 1 | Regain Polymers

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History of Synthetic Polymers: Part 1

Although natural polymers form the basis of life, synthetic polymers came about only relatively recently.

Vulcanized rubber

In the mid-nineteenth century, American scientist Charles Goodyear was trying to make rubber more temperature stable. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, he accidentally added a mixture of sulphur and pre-rubber to a hot stove. To Goodyear’s surprise, the rubber did not melt but only charred slightly. By 1844, Goodyear was granted a patent for what he called "vulcanization" after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.


Following years of laboratory work, Leo Baekeland announced in 1907 first truly synthetic polymer, later called "Bakelite." The new material could be worked with tools, was resistant to acids and natural liquids, was stable at high temperatures, and did not react to electrical charge. By adding dyes to the mix, objects became available in a variety of colours. Bakelite was used to make bowling balls, records, telephone housings, and cookware. Bakelite was also used as a binder for textiles, sawdust, and paper, forming various composites including Formica laminates. Many of these combinations are still in use today.


Catholic priest-come-chemist Julius A. Nieuwland worked extensively with acetylene in the 1920s. He found that the material could be made to form dimers and trimers. Arnold Collins, a chemist, continued Nieuwland’s work and in 1930 ran a reaction described by Nieuwland, purifying the mixture. He was left with a small amount of material that was neither vinylacetylene nor divinylacetylene. Having set the liquid aside, Collins saw it solidify into a material that seemed rubbery and bouncy. This new rubber, Neoprene, was seen to be extremely resistant to gasoline and oil and is now used in various applications including electrical cabling, window gaskets, shoe soles, industrial hose, and heavy-duty drive belts.


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