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How was plastic invented?

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9 months ago

The discovery of synthetic plastic in the 19th century paved the way for the creation of a mass material unlike any previously known – lightweight, rust-free, and can be molded into any imaginable shape. Plastics can occur naturally; but all plastics in common use now are fully synthetic.

In 1907, Belgian-born American inventor Leo Hendrik Baekeland created one of the first commercially successful plastics, now known as bakelite. What gives plastic its special character is the shape of its molecules. With only a few exceptions, plastics are made up of long organic molecules known as polymers made up of many small molecules, or monomers. Few polymers occur naturally, like cellulose, the main woody substance in plants.

Although natural polymers were too complex to be prepared in the 1800s, some scientists began investigating ways to create them synthetically from chemical reactions. In 1862, British chemist Alexander Parkes created a synthetic form of cellulose that he called Parkesine.

A few years later, American John Wesley Hyatt developed another form of cellulose, referred to as celluloid.

After Baekeland developed the world's first photographic paper in the 1890s, he sold the idea to Kodak and bought a house with his own laboratory equipment. Here he experimented with creating synthetic shellac.

Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac beetle. It is a natural polymer used to give furniture and other objects a resistant, shiny shell.

Baekeland realized that by treating phenol resin from coal tar with formaldehyde, he could produce a type of shellac. In 1907 he added various powders to this resin and found that it could create a remarkably hard, formable plastic. This plastic is known chemically as polyoxybenzylmethyleneglycolanhydride, but Baekeland simply called it Bakelite.

Bakelite was a "thermoset" plastic, a plastic that retains its shape after heating. Due to its resistance to heat and non-conductivity, Bakelite was soon used in the manufacture of radios, telephones and electrical insulators. It was quickly used for other purposes as well.

There are thousands of synthetic plastics available today, including plexiglass, low-density polyethylene, and cellophane. The majority are based on hydrocarbons (chemicals made from hydrogen and carbon) derived from petroleum or natural gas. However, in recent decades, carbon fibers, nanotubes, and other materials have been added to create super-light, super-strong plastic materials like kevlar.

Leo Baekeland was born in Ghent, Belgium, and studied at the university there. He became associate professor of chemistry in 1889 and married Celine Swarts. While the young couple were on their honeymoon in New York, Baekeland met Richard Anthony, the president of a famous photography company. Anthony was so impressed with Baekeland's work on photographic processes that he hired him as his chemistry consultant. Baekeland moved to the USA and soon started his own business.

Baekeland invented the first photographic paper known as Velox, before developing the Bakelite that enriched it.

He has many inventions other than plastic and has registered more than 50 patents in total. Toward the end of his life he became a strange recluse who ate only canned food. He died in 1944 and is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York.

Notable Works:

1909 – Paper on Bakelite read to the American Chemical Societ

Historical Developments About Plastic

1839 – Berlin pharmacist Eduard Simon distills styrene resin from Anatolian sweetgum tree. A century later this was developed by the German company IG Farben and converted into polystyrene.

1862 - Alexander Parkes develops the first synthetic plastic Flooring.

1869 - American John Wesley Hyatt creates celluloid, which is used as a substitute for ivory to make billiard balls.

1933 - British chemists Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson of the ICI company create the first practical polyethylene.

1954 - Italian Giulio Natta and German Kari Rehn invent polypropylene, the most widely used plastic today, without knowing each other.

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