Teflon was Invented by Accident

Today I found out Teflon was invented by accident.

The man who accidentally invented it was Dr. Roy Plunkett.  After receiving his BA, MS, and eventually PhD in organic chemistry, Dr. Plunkett took a job with DuPont, in Jackson New Jersey.  He was subsequently assigned to work on synthesizing various new forms of refrigerant, trying to find a non-toxic alternative to refrigerants like sulfur dioxide and ammonia.

According to DuPont, in 1938, 27 year old Dr. Plunkett and his assistant, Jack Rebok, were experimenting with one such potential alternative refrigerant, tetrafluorethylene (TFE).  Dr. Plunkett subsequently created around 100 pounds of TFE and stored the gas in small cylinders.

On April 6, 1938, upon opening the valve on one of the pressurized cylinders of TFE that had previously been frozen, nothing came out, even though by its weight, it seemed to still be full.  Dr. Plunkett and Jack Rebok then decided to investigate further by cutting the cylinder open.  Once they managed to get it open, they discovered that the TFE gas inside had polymerized into a waxy white powder, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) resin.

Ever the scientist, Plunkett then proceeded to run tests on this new substance to see if it had any unique or useful properties.  Four of the most important properties of this substance discovered were that it was extremely slippery (one of the slipperiest substances known to man), non-corrosive, chemically stable, and that it had an extremely high melting point. These properties were deemed interesting enough that the study of the substance was transferred to DuPont’s Central Research Department and assigned to chemists that had special experience in polymer research and development, while Dr. Plunkett was then promoted and transferred to a separate division that produced tetraethyl, used to boost gasoline octane levels.

Three years later, the process and name of Teflon were patented and trademarked.  Four years after that, Teflon first began being sold, initially only used for various industrial and military applications due to the expense of producing TFE.  By the 1960s, various forms of Teflon were being used in a variety of applications, such as stain repellant in fabrics and electrical wire insulation.  It was also in the 1960s that Teflon began being used in its most publicly known application, as a coating for non-stick pans.  Today, Teflon or other brands of the same product are also used in windshield wipers; carpets and furniture (as a stain repellant); light bulbs; coating on glasses; in various hair products; in semiconductor manufacturing; automotive lubricant; igniters for solid-fuel rocket propellants; and in infrared decoy flares, among other things.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Dr. Plunkett’s roommate in college, Paul Flory, went on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1974.
  • The Guinness Book of World Records once listed Teflon as the slipperiest substance in existence.  This has since been shown to be incorrect, actually being the third slipperiest substance.  Although, it still is the only known substance that a gecko’s feet cannot stick to, because of Teflon’s resistance to van der Waals forces.  Van der Waals forces are the sum of the attractive and repulsive forces between molecules.
  • Molecularly, Teflon is one of the largest molecules known to man and consists of carbon and fluorine.  Each carbon atom has two fluorine atoms attached.  It turns out, when fluorine is part of a molecule, it actually repels other matter, which is why the gecko’s feet cannot stick to it.  The bond between the fluorine and carbon is also extremely strong which makes Teflon very non-reactive to other chemicals, which is why it was used in the Manhattan Project as a coating for the valves and seals of containers holding the extremely reactive uranium hexafluoride.
  • The first non-stick pan using Teflon was called “Tefal” and was made by a French engineer by the name of Marc Grégoire, in 1954.   The first U.S. based Teflon coated pan was marketed by Marion A. Trozzolo in 1961, called “The Happy Pan”.
  • Unlike the older generations of Teflon non-stick pans, the newest generations are dishwasher safe and can be scraped with things like metal whisks or spatulas without ruining the non-stock coating.
  • Today, particularly in politics, Teflon has become a nickname for people for whom criticism does not seem to stick.  One example of this was “Teflon Tony”, for British Prime Minister Tony Blair
  • Dr. Plunkett retired from DuPont in 1975 and was inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 1973 and eventually into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame in 1985.  He died on May 12, 1994.
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  • Old Person

    As I Recall*, German chemists actually synthesized this material ca. 1914, they poured it down the drain.

    *From the TV show “Connections”, if memory serves.

    • LOVEPAREEK

      I WATCHED THAT WHOLE SERIES, A MARVELLOUS ONE …MUST SEE…ESP THE LAST EPISODE….AND I ALSO HAVE A FAINT RECOLLECTION OF WHAT U SAY BEING RIGHT.

  • young person

    And we all know how trustworthy large corporations like DuPont are when it comes to publicly releasing information.

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  • LOVEPAREEK

    ………….This has since been shown to be incorrect, actually being the third slipperiest substance.——————PREY, WHAT R THE OTHER TWO? WHY LEAVE THE CHAMPS OUT?…..
    AS THEY SAY, GOD IS IN THE DETAILS.
    NICE ARTICLE.

  • LOVEPAREEK

    HI DAVEN, PLS RESOLVE TWO MINOR POINTS:
    1. IT IS STRANGE (IS IT HAPPENING AT MY END, LIKE SOME DNS PROBLEM ETC OR UNIVERSAL) THAT AT THE TOP IT SAYS 8 COMMENTS BUT THE ACTUAL NUMBER OF COMMENTS R ONLY 4.
    2. YOUR SITE IS GETTING TO B VERY HEAVY TO LOAD ON COMP, DUNNO WHY….AGAIN, I M NOT SURE IF THAT HAPPENS IN THIS PART OF THE WORLD ONLY OR IS IT THAT YOUR SITE HAS REALLY BECOME HEAVY.
    BTW, ONE OF THE BEST SITES ON THE NET. KEEP IT ROLLIN’ TNX.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @LOVEPAREEK: That has been happening more and more due to certain flash ads all loading at the same time (particularly a problem in Firefox). I’ve not been able to identify which ads are doing it though as it’s so random. 🙂 One potential solution is to reduce the number of ads on the site, but as heavily researched articles are extremely expensive, that’s not really a realistic option at this point. Another option is a different banner ad unit at the top which pays a lot more, but is also a bit more annoying in that sometimes it auto expands to 400 pixels tall. That would probably allow me to reduce the overall number of ads by two though, which I think would fix the slowness issue altogether. So a bit of a trade-off there, but I’m not really a fan of a big ad at the top. Yet another option is to implement some sort of crowdfunding where if you subscribe (for some cheap amount like $1.99-$2.99 a month or something) you get no ads whatsoever as long as you subscribe. I think that one’s probably the best overall option, but I’m not sure how many people would actually pay for something they can get for free if they want. 🙂 So from that perspective might not work at all. What do you think?

      • LOVEPAREEK

        Never had any idea bout so many intricacies involved as I havent been involved in any gigantic venture like this. In face of that, i.e., a vis-a-vis analysis, the issue fades away. In any case never was so much of an issue at all. I think the status-quo is fine. tnx for replying.

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  • john

    In fact both of his chemicals have proved to be highly detrimental to mankind.
    PFOA a breakdown of Teflon is highly to mankind it grows tumors in every vital organ.
    As to his brilliant CFC’s they have now been banned because of the detrimental effect on mankind.
    This person should be remembered for a time when we had no idea about the future effects of ignorant endeavor.