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March 24, 2005

Accidents and Leftovers

In the early 1800's natural gas, derived from coal, resulted in a gunky waste byproduct called Coal Tar. Chemist  August Wilhelm von Hofmann discovered Coal Tar could be distilled into multiple chemical compounds. His assistant, William Henry Perkin, while trying to synthesize quinine accidentally...

invented the synthetic dyestuffs industry by cleaning a spill with a cotton rag which immediately turned a bright, rich purple.  Coal Tar derivatives then became the starting point for many polymers!

Scottish Dyemaker Charles Macintosh had another downstream Coal Tar derivative waste called Naphtha. In an effort to make the waste usable he discovered that rubber mixed with naphtha became a coatable rubber... hence, Macks.. rain gear.

In one of the more famous stories, Charles Goodyear accidentally spilled some latex with sulfur onto a stove, discovering cross-linking.  What many folks don't know is that his accident was somewhat deserved as he had spent a lifetime in poverty as a rubber fanatic, trying to solve rubber's quality woes.

Our next accident occurred in 1846 when Christian Friedrich Schonbein spilled a flask with nitric and sulfuric acids. He began to clean it with a cotton rag, which when left to dry, vaporized in flames!  Via the addition of sulfur, he had accidentally discovered Guncotton (nitro-cellulose), a high explosive superior to gunpowder. It's connection to plastics?  Well that brings us to Louis Menard, a poet, artist and part time chemist who was working on mixing solvents with nitro-cellulose to create a superior artist's varnish to replace shellac, a varnish derived from beetles. His invention, Collodion, made by adding alcohol and ether to nitro-cellulose, failed to work as an artist's varnish as it melted the paint.  Not realizing any of the other potentials he left the industry and left others to explore the potential of his invention.

While trying to invent varnish, he had unknowingly invented what Alexander Parkes would soon name Parkesine, one of the first plastics to be molded into combs, billard balls, etc.

Jwh420x550_1 Then came John Wesley Hyatt, who discovered that a spilled container of Collodion had dried into a hard transparent film. Improving on Parkesine, Hyatt's camphor treated Collodion was named Celluloid, the first thermoplastic moldable polymer.

George Eastman, an amateur photographer and clerk, became motivated to improve the photography experience after having to lug so much heavy equipment and chemicals with him, only to have a broken chemical vial soil his underware. He went on to revolutionize the field by replacing glass plates with flexible celluloid film!

The next commercially successful plastic, after Celluloid, was invented by a cat. Chemist Adolf Spitteler's cat knocked formaldehyde into it's milk bowl, where it curdled into a hard celluloid-like substance.  This resulted in Galalith, produced from milk protein (casein) with formaldehyde.  This process was also the inspiration for the more well known antique plastic invented by Leo Baekeland, Bakelite!

In 1903 Edouard Benedictus invented safety glass. Well, more or less. He accidentally dropped a bottle that had dried up nitro-cellulose in it. When the glass broke, it remained in place, albeit shattered. He went on to patent celluloid laminated glass, safety glass.

We close on a slippery slope as our last accidental invention is teflon.  While experimenting with Freon, a fluorohydrocarbon gas, Roy Plunkett accidentally created polytetrafluoroethylene.

What has happened to all of our great accidental inventors? Have we become too technical, too scientific to leave room for some silly spills and whatnot?  Ah to be back in the day when all could be invented in your very own kitchen laboratory, assuming an obliging spouse.

Stephenfenichell_ Facts from these tidbits were all gathered from my newest favorite book, The Making of a Synthetic Century.

This book, while no longer in print, Amazon has a few copies for sale. I highly recommend it.

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I too miss the "accidental discoveries" of the past. The problem today is that the plastics industry is no longer a bunch of small entrepeneurs trying all sorts of new, fun things with their own hands. There are a few chemists around trying new stuff, but they are mostly formulating things with existing plastics. The other problem I have noticed is that even if you come up with something new, it is very difficult to get it on the market because its so expensive to break into the market place these days.

Example: I have consulted with many individuals who have a hot product idea that needs to made out of plastic. But when I tell them what its going to cost just to make a prototype and solve all the problems with it, they get that shocked look and go glassy eyed on me. It takes a very well funded organization and a lot of time to bring a new product to market.

That is especially true of a new material, because you don't know what applications it might work well in until you have a lot of money invested in it. TEFLON is a prime example. I recall a lecture by DuPont representatives while I was in grad school many years ago. They had finally figured out how to make something useful out of the stuff, which took quite a lot of time money by itself. They then began a worldwide campaign to market it. They came to UCLA with several bottles, and told us that if any of us ever came up with the "Universal Solvent," they had a bottle for it! Pretty good advertising slogan, and it worked.

Can you imagine what the cost of introducing something totally new like TEFLON would be today? Only a DuPont could afford it then, or now.

Jim Mason - [email protected]

I too miss the "accidental discoveries" of the past. The problem today is that the plastics industry is no longer a bunch of small entrepeneurs trying all sorts of new, fun things with their own hands. There are a few chemists around trying new stuff, but they are mostly formulating things with existing plastics. The other problem I have noticed is that even if you come up with something new, it is very difficult to get it on the market because its so expensive to break into the market place these days.

Example: I have consulted with many individuals who have a hot product idea that needs to made out of plastic. But when I tell them what its going to cost just to make a prototype and solve all the problems with it, they get that shocked look and go glassy eyed on me. It takes a very well funded organization and a lot of time to bring a new product to market.

That is especially true of a new material, because you don't know what applications it might work well in until you have a lot of money invested in it. TEFLON is a prime example. I recall a lecture by DuPont representatives while I was in grad school many years ago. They had finally figured out how to make something useful out of the stuff, which took quite a lot of time money by itself. They then began a worldwide campaign to market it. They came to UCLA with several bottles, and told us that if any of us ever came up with the "Universal Solvent," they had a bottle for it! Pretty good advertising slogan, and it worked.

Can you imagine what the cost of introducing something totally new like TEFLON would be today? Only a DuPont could afford it then, or now.

Jim Mason - [email protected]

Beyond money and time, there are other hurdles to the invention of new polymers - OSHA and TSCA. Any of these events in a current lab could result in fines and other disciplinary actions. 'OOPS'

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