Six of the best accidental discoveries in polymer history

While necessity might be the mother of invention, in the field of polymer production it seems the well-meaning brother of invention is happenstance. Because there have been countless accidental discoveries of brand-new polymers throughout history. From vulcanised rubber to the world’s first recyclable thermoset plastic, many of the polymer materials we use today were created purely by accident  as TRP Polymer Solutions explains.

What is a polymer?

A polymer is a molecule that is made by bonding many smaller molecules, called monomers, together. “Polymer” derives from the Greek words “poly” (many) and “mer” (unit). This neatly encapsulates the chemical reaction that we now know as polymerisation, which bonds the long, repeating chains of molecules into a polymer. Natural polymers occur in the form of proteins, rubber and wood but we’re primarily interested in the synthetic variety here.

There have been countless accidental discoveries of new and useful polymers in recent history. Many of which were invented by enterprising – but ultimately lucky – chemists who stumbled upon innovative new products during the course of their experiments. These polymer materials have become mainstays in our everyday lives. The following are six of the most influential chance polymer discoveries in history.

  1. Vulcanised rubber

In 1839, self-taught American chemist Charles Goodyear accidentally dropped India rubber mixed with sulphur onto a hot stove. The sulphur bonded with the rubber polymer strands, creating cross-links. This enabled the rubber to snap back when stretched and made it more resilient. A process known as “vulcanisation”, which is still a staple of rubber manufacturing today. Particularly automobile tyres, for which the Goodyear name is best known.

  1. Celluloid

In 1846, Swiss chemist Charles Schönbein spilled a mixture of nitric and sulphuric acids onto some cotton. The resulting reaction created the highly unstable polymer, nitrocellulose, which was later used in gunpowder. This was the pre-cursor to the first semi-synthetic commercial plastic, celluloid, which combined nitrocellulose and camphor to create a polymer that was eventually used to make everything from billiard balls to film reel.

  1. Bakelite

Bakelite was the first fully synthetic plastic to go into production. It was discovered in 1907 by Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland who was intent on producing a cheaper alternative to shellac. By combining formaldehyde and phenol, Baekeland unwittingly created a brand-new thermosetting resin that became ubiquitous in domestic and industrial manufacturing – paving the way for the modern era of man-made plastics. 

  1. Polythene

ICI chemists Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson are widely credited with the chance discovery of polyethylene (PE), better known as polythene. Their high-pressure experiments on ethylene produced a hitherto unknown waxy, solid substance. It wasn’t until 1938 that ICI finally perfected the polymer, which would go on to have several era-defining moments in history as insulation for airborne radar equipment in WWII, the Hula Hoop, and plastic shopping bags. 

  1. PTFE (Teflon)

Perhaps the biggest chance discovery came at the hands of Roy Plunkett. In 1938, the DuPont chemist was busy trying to invent a new type of Freon (now known as chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs). He found that some of these refrigerants had polymerised, leaving a white, waxy substance that didn’t react with any chemicals and could withstand incredibly high temperatures. This was the birth of PTFE, which would later be marketed as Teflon.

  1. Titan/Hydro

In 2014, IBM polymer chemist, Jeannette Garcia, discovered an exciting new class of materials. After breaking down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, Garcia noticed a white material in her mixing flask. To her surprise, it refused to crack under repeated hammer blows. Garcia had not only invented the first recyclable, industrial-strength thermoset polymer, aptly named “Titan”, but also created a self-healing, gel-like version of it, called “Hydro”.

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TRP Polymer Solutions was established in 2004 in Hereford, UK. They are specialists in the design, development and manufacture of custom rubber mouldings and O-rings for a wide range of industries worldwide. With flexible production processes, TRP Polymer Solutions offers short lead times and prototype development targets for both custom products and high-performance seals. Contact TRP Polymer Solutions today on +44(0)1432 268899 or sales@trp.co.uk.