A History of Plastics
from Charles the First
to Charles the Third
Raw materials for plastics
Before 1900: plants
1880-1945: coal; milk; plants
In modern times: salt; oil and natural gas
21st Century: castor beans,
palm oil, sugar, cotton,
corn, tapioca, algae,
Note: the rise in the price of sugar raised the
UN FAO Food Price Index to 234 in June 2011,
near to its record level of 239
Castor oil beans make starting materials for carbon-neutral
“nylons” for vehicle parts. (CO2 is absorbed during bean growth)
Sir Robert Hooke, 1635--1703
Not popular. No portraits survive.
Disfigured by smallpox as a child; orphan; father committed
suicide when he was 13; difficult temperament, enemies (such
as Isaac Newton) prevented recognition as an English
Leonardo da Vinci.
the iris diaphragm in cameras, the universal joint in vehicles,
the balance wheel in watches, etc.
First to use the word 'cell' in the context of biology
Author of the first book on microscopy
Surveyor of the City of London after the Great Fire.
Architect, astronomer; deputy to Sir Christopher Wren.
Known today for “Hooke’s Law” and the concept of extrusion.
PART ONE: Natural Plastics
Flowers, foliage and fruit
of the Isonandra Gutta
A resin is obtained by
evaporating and coagulating the milk
from the gutta percha tree trunk. It
can be shaped in boiling water.
Gutta percha---a natural plastic or
“resin” (Tradescantia was
named after his dad)
John Tradescant (1608-62) the younger
(head gardener to Queen Henrietta Maria
at Greenwich, 1638-42) obtained Mazer
wood, via a merchant, from Singapore
Used for knife handles (1843)*, medical
devices, jewellery; to insulate undersea
cables (1847 till 1940s).
First gutta golf ball in 1840’s by Rev. Dr.
Paterson. (Previously, wood or leather stuffed with
feathers). Much cheaper, making golf more popular.
1845 Lagrénée returned to France with some gutta percha which he named “gum plastic”.
Synthetic gutta percha developed at
Dunlop for golf ball covers, 1960-2.
Gutta percha is trans 1, 4 polyisoprene whereas
natural rubber is cis 1, 4 polyisoprene
Notes and Queries
In 1839 a German apothecary, Eduard Simon,
distilled an oil from the resin of the Sweetgum tree,
and named it "styrol". Over a few days it formed a
jelly, which he called “styrol oxide”. It was
actually poor quality polystyrene and not an oxide.
It’s not recognised as the first fully man-made
plastic; usable polystyrene only came in 1933!
Trunk of rubber tree,
with cup for collecting “milk”
The rubber is coagulated, dried and “over-cooked”
with sulphur to form ebonite for gramophone
records, bowls, castors, (smoking) pipes.
PLASTICS FROM COWS!
(1899) (“The most beautiful of all plastics”)
Krisch & Spitteler
A protein is separated from milk by the enzyme rennin. It is
moulded to shape under heat and pressure, and hardened by soaking
in formalin (health hazard!). Casein products are machined from
sheet, rod, or tube. Now confined mostly to buttons in New Zealand
Alexander Parkes 1813 - 1890
Manager of the metal casting
department at Elkington,
Mason & Co. in Birmingham.
1846 Parkes patented a mixture
of natural rubber with gutta
percha. The world‟s first
blended and toughened plastic?
1856: The world’s first semi-synthetic
Invented in Birmingham
Parkes took out over 80 patents and made the
world’s first artificial plastic, cellulose nitrate.
He called it “Parkesine,” [shown at the
International Exhibition in London in 1862].
Awarded a medal, made no profit.
The American printer / inventor John Wesley
Hyatt was asked by Phelan & Collander
(manufacturers of billiard balls) to find a
substitute for ivory (elephants were scarce).
Hyatt made cellulose nitrate, called it “Celluloid”.
His “stuffing machine” (1872) was a forerunner
of modern injection moulding machines
Four stages of celluloid production and moulding
(Celluloid Manufacturing Co., Albany, NY, USA)
Cotton + Nitric Acid, Sulphuric Acid Nitrocellulose
Moulded Pure Celluloid with
article Powdering added camphor
“Stuffing to adjust softness
19th Century Celluloid Uses
Dental plates (1871); knife handles; toys; washable collars
and cuffs; billiard balls, buttons, brooches,
dolls, folding toothpicks, combs, paperweights, thimbles,
shoe-horns, table tennis balls, etc.
Celluloid strips were coated with a photosensitive gelatin emulsion
and used in early motion pictures (1880s) ---big fire problem!
Later replaced by cellulose acetate or polyester .
PART TWO: MAN-MADE
Phenol + Formaldehyde P-F resin + water
Dr Leo Baekeland
(Belgian) made P-F
General Bakelite Co. in
1910 in USA
Bayer (Germany) and Luft (Austria) had already
made similar resins, but failed to commercialise them.
James Swinburne formed Fireproof Celluloid
Syndicate Ltd in 1904 to investigate the P-F
insulating resins shown him by Luft of Austria. He
failed to make insulator mouldings, but made a
hard lacquer, more durable than shellac, and used
it for coating brass to prevent tarnishing - (brass
bedsteads were fashionable and made in
In 1910 he formed the Damard Lacquer Co. in a
lean-to shed in Birmingham. Successful. Demand
rose. Patent struggles with Baekeland.
BAKELITE Ltd was formed in 1927 to
exploit Baekeland’s patents in the UK by
Damard Lacquer Co.,
Mouldensite Ltd (a leading moulding
Redmanol Ltd (the UK arm of an American
PVC was discovered in 1912 by Fritz
Klatte, a German chemist.
• Klatte reacted acetylene with hydrochloric
acid to produce vinyl chloride. Thinking
he'd failed, he put it on a shelf, where it
went solid (formed PVC). He
patented it in Germany. His company never
did anything with it.
Ten years later, the patent expired. 1926, Waldo Semon,
American chemist with B.F.Goodrich, “discovered” PVC,
without knowledge of Klatte's discovery. He showed it to his boss,
who patented it in America. They thought it would make good
The waterproof material soon found more creative uses, and
Goodrich made a fortune. Klatte never saw a penny.
PVC wire and cable jacketing has much better
durability than natural rubber. Less re-wiring!
It‟s also used
for pipe, buildings,
shoes, etc, etc
“Pay with plastic”
PVC Extrusions ---continuous “profiles”
such as gutters, hose, sheet, curtain rails,
conveyer belts for mining, window frames.
made on a
the early 1970s
1880s Shellac used for records by Emil Berliner. First
to use discs (rather than “phonograph” cylinders)
despite earlier work by Edison, Bell and Cros. Even
with cotton reinforcement it was brittle, but it could
reproduce fine detail. Other companies used ebonite.
78 rpm was standard by late 1920s.
1952 PVC (“vinyl”). Known as
“unbreakable” because shellac resin cracked so easily.
Others say Billy Joel‟s 52nd St, made
Abba’s song “The Visitors” was in Japan; or Beethoven‟s 9th, others
the first commercial CD, in 1982. say “Born in the USA”
1982 is probably right.
Made of polycarbonate.
• invented by Fawcett and Gibson (ICI)
1933, production 1 Sept 1939;
• first use -- military radar (WW2)
• 6 different types later invented
Postwar: shopping bags,
wire insulation, packaging,
(failed) washing-up bowls
Later: stiffer type made, used for Fairy
Liquid bottles; swing-top bins; pipes
has extra long molecules
a rmoured vehicles
• Unsaturated polyesters (“fibre glass
boats”) 1940s and 1950s
• Epoxy resins (“Araldite” etc) 1939
• Nylons; saturated polyester (“polyester-
cotton shirts”) 1930s; (first textiles, then
William H Carothers
Started as a junior accountant,
then chemistry student, then head of
Worked at DuPont
Invented Neoprene rubber,
Polyester textiles, (1930s)
Invented nylon, Committed
suicide at age 41.
Nylon is used for gears, low voltage
switchgear (top left); fishing lines,
under-bonnet car parts, toothbrushes;
but was invented as a textile.
Semi-finished nylon products
Polypropylene (invented 1954)
Drinking water bottles (not huge ones)
Garden membranes for weed control
Polycarbonate (1953) is tough and
can be transparent…
discovered by Daniel Fox at GE (Lexan) and by
Hermann Schnell at Bayer (Makrolon) (both in 1953)
Uses: riot shields, visors, greenhouses,
conservatories, lenses, CDs, DVDs,
30% of all US spectacle lenses are made of
polycarbonate, because of lawsuits about
eye injuries from lenses breaking
for long riot
American football shields and jet fighter
helmet cockpit canopies
In 2009, the UK Home Office says that glass beer
mugs and bottles cost the NHS and police
£100 million a year through 87,000 reported injuries
Basic injection moulding machine for making
thermoplastic articles (from combs to chairs) A
screw was first used instead of a ram in 1946.
Close-up of a mould for making paper clips
• Solar energy
Some mouldings for road transport
Windscreen washer Electric
Elbows, ducts and connectors
Toyota Prius (August 2009) uses plastics from plants
e.g. seat cushion foam, cowl side trim, inner and outer scuff
plates. Special Prius “A” for Japan uses air conditioning outlet
made from sugar. Other raw materials: polylactic acid from
starch, polyester, kenaf fibre, and polyols from castor oil.
Polycarbonate glazing is 50% lighter than glass
and has high impact resistance.
Suppliers claim a weight reduction of more than
20kg (50%) is possible when replacing all glass
windows (except the windshield) in a minivan.
Vehicle manufacturers can now try 3D-shaped
windows and new opening mechanisms.
Polycarbonate can now be made from carbon dioxide (and propylene oxide) instead of the hazardous use of phosgene
reacted with bisphenol A. The last-named chemical is under suspicion as a health hazard to foetuses and children
Lithium ion batteries
• A separator is a plastic film (often specially
modified polypropylene, or a polyimide)
preventing the electrodes from touching, but
letting lithium ions pass between them to allow
the charge and discharge of the battery.
• A hybrid car has between 50 and 70
• plug-in hybrids--
80 to 200
• fully electric cars
at least 150.
SUPERBUS MADE IN AN OVEN
This 15 metre long, Dutch-made battery-powered
bus –with gull-wing doors – is made from a carbon
fibre reinforced plastic chassis, glass reinforced
polypropylene bodywork, and polycarbonate
THE PACKAGING INDUSTRY
Food packaging prolongs food life,
saves more than 25% food
from the waste bin. Plastic bottles save
on fuel, don’t break, and can be
recycled. Plastic packaging uses only
2% of all oil produced.
Packaging is high–tech (multi-layered, can incorporate anti-piracy
watermarks for designer label goods, exclude oxygen, retain
moisture, stop meat discoloration, control CO2 access)
This food packaging by Linpac won a
European prize in 2009 for products containing over
50% recycled plastics
• Tubing; IV accessories; blood bags Papworth.
900 of these
Syringes; catheters worldwide
• Temporary heart
• Radiation shielding (instead of lead)
• blood glucose meters; pumps; drug
Note: plastic components can incorporate
antimicrobial additives (biocides) to combat
Only a few reinforced plastics parts shown here
Main-wing box Rear fuselage
Centre wing box
50% reinforced plastic
(CFRP) so 20% less fuel Boeing 787 Dreamliner
(Based on Flight International drawing)
• Space suits; Moon rover vehicles
• Electrically conducting plastics
• Electronic paper
• “Smart” materials change colour in response
to pressure, temperature, light, “remember”
their previous shape and go back to it;
• blood clot warning devices for air travellers;
Heal any scratches by themselves*
(*An additive is used:--short polymer molecules
containing zinc or lanthanum ions; it melts and
repairs the scratch in 1 minute under UV light,
provided the sample is thin enough)
When Charles 3 is king: cheap solar energy?
Edited quotes from researchers at Sheffield University, July 2011
“Ultra-cheap solar energy panels will one day be made on
a large scale. Rather than using complex and expensive
fabrication methods to create a specific semiconductor
nanostructure, high-volume printing will produce nano-
scale (60nm) polymer films of solar cells to make solar
"In 2 hours, enough energy from sunlight falls on the Earth
to satisfy the energy needs of its population for a whole
year, but we need cheap and efficient solar cells that can
cover huge areas to move us into a new age of renewable
Most plastics can be recycled (even PVC!)
but to be economic, different types should not
be mixed up
Conversion to chemicals or fuel oil can be
more economic than simply re-shaping
•Detergent, other cleaning fluids, shampoos,
pills, soft drinks --REMOVE LIDS FIRST
Recycling one plastic bottle can save enough energy
to light a 60W bulb for 6 hours
This boat was made from 16,000 recycled
PET bottles, to sail from San Francisco to Sydney.
Recycled polyethylene walkway in
Bracknell. The Domesday Book
copse is low-lying and prone to
flooding; so a wooden structure
would have quickly rotted
Courtesy of Tech Wood
This building is made of 70% waste sawdust
and 30% resin (such as polyethylene)
A UK Environment Agency document,
Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier
Bags, asserts that polythene bags have
less impact on the environment than many
supposedly „green‟ alternatives;
the so-called single use plastic bag is around 200
times less damaging than multi-use cotton bags.
Some biodegradable bags generate methane
rapidly during landfill
The UK Environment Agency (EA) has temporarily withdrawn its report while a legal query is resolved.
The report shows that re-use of bags rather than the material of which
they are made per se is the critical factor in reducing environmental impact. A cotton bag would have to be used at least 131
times to ensure that it has a lower global warming potential than a conventional “single use” lightweight HDPE carrier
bag that is not reused. Paper and compostable bioplastic bags also show higher global warming potential than the
conventional plastic bag. US students have identified polyurethane-eating organisms from the Amazon area.
The oceans have big “islands” of plastic rubbish
delivered to a central point by converging ocean currents
According to the Germans, 80% of all
marine waste reaches
the sea from the land because of poor
waste management. Germany already
recovers 97% of its plastic waste.
The Pacific one was once said to be 14 times the size of
Holland, or twice that of Texas
Other oceanographers disagree; they say if you just measure the area of the plastic, rather than
the area affected by merging currents, it is a small fraction of the state of Texas, say 1% .
A 22 year study has found no increase in size over that time.
Whim Architecture has proposed making an island
the size of Hawaii from Pacific ocean plastic waste,
to create a floating home for 500,000 people,
powered by solar energy and wave motion.
Electrolux has launched a “Vac from the sea”
initiative to suck waste out of the ocean to use it to
make sustainable vacuum cleaners.
2 of the first 5 vacuum cleaners!!
The European Union
Recycled plastic offers fishermen
“reefs” protect cash for catching
Dubai coast from plastic rubbish
erosion instead of fish!
What does scampi
have in its stomach?
Four fifths of them
----Researchers from London and Aberdeen Universities
wrote in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2011:--
“The results of our study clearly show that scampi in
the Clyde (estuary) are consuming plastics and that one
of the sources of this plastic is that used by the scampi
fishery itself.” (that is, the nets!)
THANKS FOR STAYING AWAKE!