During the late 19th century natural resources such as wood, ivory, and tortoiseshell were being depleted at a rapid rate. Ivory and tortoiseshell were highly sought-after materials for luxury items including hand-carved combs, hand-held mirrors, jewelry boxes, and many high-end personal items enjoyed by the well-to-do at the time. These materials were also used extensively for medical and dental instruments and more utilitarian uses such as pistol grips.
With the immense technological progress in chemistry and a need to find a replacement for dwindling natural resources, scientists began to search for man-made materials that could sustain the rising demand for consumer products. In the late 1800s a young Belgian chemistry student named Leo Hendrick Baekeland developed an interest in phenolic resins. Baekeland went on to make a small fortune in America with his invention of a new photographic paper. By 1905 he was a wealthy New Yorker and, while he had made his fortune, advances had been made in the development of plastics. Between 1899 and 1900 the first semi-synthetic thermosetting material that could be manufactured on an industrial scale was produced. However, up until this time there was no way to control the reaction between phenol and formaldehyde to realize consistent results necessary for commercial production.
Baekeland saw the potential in these materials and invested his knowledge and money in developing a process by which this reaction could be controlled, making commercial production possible. Baekeland patented his process, which is still used today in consumer products, electrical applications, and military equipment under the name Bakelite.
By the mid-20th century, interest in commercial plastics, especially in thermoplastics that could be melted, reshaped, and recycled, was growing rapidly. In the 1930s a chemical engineer for DuPont named Wallace Hume Carothers developed Nylon 6/6 and Nylon 6, which became the first commercially successful synthetic thermoplastic polymers. Nylon was first used commercially in 1938 in the nylon-bristled toothbrush and later in women’s stockings or “nylons” that were introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair and sold commercially in 1940. During the years of WW2 almost all nylon production was diverted to the war effort for parachutes and parachute cord. Nylon is now used in every industry and in products of all kinds.
During the 1940s and ‘50s reinforced polymers were rapidly developed, providing materials with the strength of some steels yet light in weight, non-corrosive, and non-conductive. During the war these materials were developed to replace metal components in military vehicles, airplanes, and helicopters. Glass fiber quickly became a favorite additive to reinforce plastic resins and in the late 1930s Owens Corning began producing glass fibers for industry. In addition to molded plastics, commercially available fiberglass laminates were being developed for heavy industry. By 1958 the French corporation Saint-Gobain, which had obtained the rights to produce glass fibers from Owens Corning in 1939, was producing fiberglass helicopter blades and bodies for the Corvette sports car.
In the ensuing years, we have seen continual improvement and development of new fillers, processes, and additives that have thrust plastics into every industry and consumer product line in the 21st century and beyond. Carbon fiber composites, for being both lightweight and as strong as most steels, are used in aircraft design, military applications, consumer products, and structural engineering. The electronics industry is all but totally reliant on plastics for everything from molded cabinets to printed circuit boards.
Automobile manufacturers have long known the advantages of lightweight plastic components to reduce weight, improve gas mileage, and reduce cost. Most major car manufacturers have plastic molding facilities on site to form body panels used on their cars.
As our world changes and we look for new materials and renewable resources, the plastics industry will continue to evolve. At present as our petroleum reserves dwindle, there are major developments in the plastics industry in the development of plant-based plastics. As our culture and technologies change, the plastics industry is poised to change with it.
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