Plastics Research Paper

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The 1907 invention of Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, ushered in an era of experimentation in plastics manufacturing. By the 1930s molded plastic goods such as clocks and crockery were the rage, but in the 1960s a proliferation of cheaply made items gave plastics a bad name. Despite the public preference for goods made from natural materials, the plastics industry proves to be remarkably resilient in the twenty-first century.

Plastics are everywhere, yet the term plastics is not well defined. The adjective plastic means pliable (from the Ancient Greek plassein, to mold), yet many plastics (notably Bakelite) are rigid. As a group, the metals are more “plastic” than plastics. Natural materials such as wax or horn are pliable but are not thought of as plastics. Rubber is usually considered separately from plastics (as in this encyclopedia) but hard rubber (ebonite) is a plastic. Any attempt at a technical definition usually ends up including adhesives and synthetic fibers, but excluding an important group of plastics such as the silicones. Our use of the term plastic usually depends on the object. The rubber duck is actually made from plastic (PVC, or polyvinyl chloride), yet carbon-fiber tennis rackets are usually not regarded as plastic. We all know what plastics are, but it is a culturally determined term, not a technical one.

The Origin of Plastics

For many centuries, objects have been shaped out of natural materials that could be considered similar to modern plastics, including clay (pottery), glass, and wood (which has a similar structure to synthetic reinforced composites). Wax, horn, and shellac (made from the lac insect) were even closer to our current concept of plastics. Horn is perhaps the closest of these materials to modern plastics. By the eighteenth century, horn was being molded, using pressure and heat, to produce a variety of objects, especially beakers, medallions, snuffboxes and jewelry. Restricting the use of the term plastics to synthetic (or at least semisynthetic) materials, the history of modern plastics began with the accidental discovery of nitrocellulose (cellulose dinitrate) by the Swiss chemist Christian Schobein in 1845. The British chemist and inventor Alexander Parkes experimented with nitrocellulose in the 1850s, and by 1860 he had made molded objects from this material, which he exhibited at the International Exhibition in London two years later. He patented the idea of adding camphor to soften the stiff nitrocellulose in 1864. Variants of the resulting substance, called Parkesine, were developed in London in the 1870s as xylonite by Parkes’s former works manager Daniel Spill and an American, Levi Merriam, and in Newark, New Jersey, as the better-known celluloid by two brothers, John Wesley and Isaiah Smith Hyatt. By the 1890s, celluloid had become an important material, used to make billiard balls (and other items formerly made from ivory), combs, washable collars and shirtfronts, photographic film, and Ping-Pong balls (invented in 1901 and one of few remaining uses of celluloid). In 1892, two British chemists, Charles Cross and Edward John Bevan, introduced a new cellulose-based material, viscose rayon, which could be molded into combs, handles, and ashtrays, but which became more important as the first commercially successful semisynthetic fiber.

Bakelite and Style

Celluloid had its uses, but it was expensive, difficult to work with, and flammable (it is related chemically to gun cotton). The real breakthrough for plastics had to await the development of the first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite. The Belgian-American chemist and inventor Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite in 1907 while trying to make a synthetic lacquer from the reaction between two organic chemicals, phenol and formaldehyde. He used a two-stage process: the chemicals reacted to form an intermediate which was then heated in a pressurized mold to make the final product. Bakelite appeared at the right moment, when the rapidly growing electrical industry was looking for a good robust material for switches and other components that did not conduct electricity. Although it could be used for domestic goods (billiard balls were an early example), its dark color and lack of translucency was a major drawback. These problems were overcome by the amino plastics (made by the reaction between formaldehyde and urea or melamine), which were colorless and translucent. They could be colored to produce very attractive molded household objects including clocks, ashtrays, and crockery. The first amino plastics were developed by the British Cyanide Company (later renamed British Industrial Plastics) in 1924, and the American Cyanamid Company introduced the melamine plastics in 1939. By the 1930s, plastics manufacturers were encouraging industrial designers, such as Norman Bel Geddes, to create new styles which showed off their products to the best advantage. In this period Bakelite and melamine plastics were particularly associated with Art Deco and the new technology of radio sets.

Wartime Expansion

In the 1930s other plastics were being developed which were very different from Bakelite, being both light and easily shaped. They had existed as laboratory curiosities for almost a century (polystyrene had been discovered in 1839), but they had not hitherto been a commercial success. Polyvinvyl chloride (PVC), for instance, decomposed on the hot rollers used to turn it into sheets. By the mid-1930s, however, the American corporation Union Carbide and the German firm I.G. Farben had independently succeeded in producing types of PVC which could be turned into flooring, cable covering, and household goods. The German firm of Rohm & Haas was successfully developing polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA, better known as Perspex or Plexiglas) in collaboration with its American counterpart. In 1933 the British chemical firm ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) had, by chance, discovered polyethylene (Polythene), which showed promise as a light insulator. The industry was initially held back by the lack of any serious demand for these new materials, but the situation was transformed by World War II. PVC was used as a substitute for rubber and other materials, PMMA was used to make aircraft cockpits, and polyethylene was used in radar sets. Polyurethanes (used in foams, shoe soles, and stretch fabrics) were a German innovation which was developed in the United States in the 1950s.

Plastics Become Common

After the war ended, the plastics industry needed to find new outlets for its products. Polyethylene was converted into washing-up bowls (dishpans), squeeze bottles, and Tupperware dishes. PVC displaced fragile shellac in long-playing records. PMMA was used to make jukeboxes. Plastics were also used extensively in house building, and in toys, for instance, hula hoops and Barbie (who was “born” in 1959). Hula hoops were among the first examples of a new plastic called high-density polyethylene which first appeared in the mid-1950s. This strategy succeeded beyond the industry’s expectations. While the period between 1945 and 1973 was a highly successful one for the plastics industry in terms of technology, production, and profits, the popular image of plastics eventually took a tumble. Whereas Bakelite had been considered high tech and stylish in the 1930s (except by snobs who always insisted that natural products were better), plastics were regarded as cheap and tacky by the mid-1960s. This was a result of poor manufacturing techniques by some of the momand- pop operations that had entered the industry, as well as the use of plastics to make cheap items such as fairground gewgaws and novelties for cereal boxes and Cracker Jacks.

Plastics Become Sophisticated

Despite their popular image, plastics were growing in technical sophistication in the 1950s and 1960s. Glass-fiber-reinforced composites enabled the production of light but very strong casings, which are now widely used in the aerospace and transport industries. Teflon had been discovered by accident in 1938, but Du Pont was opposed to its use in cooking utensils, and the first nonstick pans, made without the firm’s approval, did not appear until 1960. In the 1960s there was a growing demand for heat-resistant plastics, partly because of the space program (and the growing popularity of ready meals) and partly because of the withdrawal of asbestos on health grounds.

The plastics industry also devoted considerable effort to developing substitutes for glass, a potentially enormous market. The polycarbonates, a virtually unbreakable, vandal-proof material used for street lighting, public shelters, and safety visors was developed independently by General Electric and the German firm Bayer in the late 1950s. At the other end of the hardness spectrum, soft contact lenses were first made by a Czech chemist, Otto Wichterle, using a chemical relative of PMMA, in 1961. Attempts to make drink containers from plastics were initially unsuccessful, but a Du Pont team headed by Nat Wyeth (a member of the famous family of artists) was able to blow drinks bottles from polyester resin (better known as a synthetic fabric) for Pepsi in 1975.

Crunch Time for Plastics

The plastics industry, which used petroleum as its raw material, was badly affected by the oil crisis of 1973, when the price of oil quadrupled. Not only did its costs escalate, the demand for its products fell as Western economies faltered. The public image of plastics was already lackluster. The environmental movement, gaining momentum from the anti-Vietnam War protests, was highlighting the highly visible results of discarded plastics waste. Even more alarmingly, there were growing concerns about the safety of the workhorse plastic PVC. In 1972, the monomer (building block) of PVC was discovered to cause a rare form of liver cancer. More recently there have been concerns about the health effects of plasticizers, chemicals used to make PVC flexible. The producers of traditional materials such as wood, metals, and glass were not idle and capitalized on this public disillusionment. Sometimes the users of these materials, for instance furniture manufacturers, made their products more competitive by incorporating plastics into their products where they would be invisible.

The Resilience of Plastic

Nevertheless, the plastics industry proved to be remarkably resilient. By 1992, American production had trebled over two decades. Meanwhile, the use of plastics continues to grow, in window frames, computers, and in our cars. The high-performance plastics of the 1960s are becoming commonplace, and even more sophisticated plastics are being developed. Carbon-fiber-reinforced composites are used in sports equipment. While the public at large remains attached to natural materials, we use an ever-increasing amount of plastics (even if we tend not to think of them as such).


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