Cellulose nitrate, the first synthetic plastic, was displayed at the International Exhibition in London by Alexander Parkes.
The first commercial production of cellulose nitrate was introduced by self-taught scientist John Wesley Hyatt in the United States. Dubbed Celluloid, the resin was compounded with camphor to make it a moldable substitute for ivory.
Leo H. Baekeland began small-scale production of phenol formaldehyde thermosetting resins a few years after starting the research in a laboratory in his backyard in Yonkers, N.Y. Baekeland received a patent in 1909, the year he trademarked the material as Bakelite. The discovery launched the modern plastics industry, whereby it became possible to mass-produce interchangeable items.
German chemist Hermann Staudinger reported natural rubber is made of giant, long-chain molecules. The insight helped pave the way for development of other long-chain molecules that became plastics. Staudinger received a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work.
German and British researchers separately developed ways of making polymethyl methacrylate, widely called acrylic. Rohm and Haas Co. commercialized it in 1933. An important early use was in aircraft canopies because of the material's light weight and splinter resistance.
I.G. Farben began commercial production of polystyrene in Ludwigshafen, Germany, hoping it could be a replacement for die-cast zinc in some applications. U.S. production began in 1937.
Injection molding was developed in Germany.
The first injection molding machine in North America, a half-ounce-shot Eckert & Ziegler model press, was installed in Toronto.
Polyethylene was discovered accidentally by ICI chemists Reginald Gibson and Eric William Fawcett as they tried to react ethylene and benzaldehyde under high pressure. The researchers made about 0.4 gram of a waxy solid that proved to be PE.
Polyvinylidene chloride also was discovered accidentally, by Dow Chemical Co. laboratory worker Ralph Wiley, who couldn't clean a persistent film from a vial. The material soon found use as a coating on airplanes to protect against sea spray. In 1953 it found wide use as Saran Wrap.
Inventor Waldo Semon was granted the original U.S. patent for polyvinyl chloride.
Wallace Carothers at DuPont Co. discovered nylon. Carothers started relevant research around 1928 without any particular goal in mind. His early work focused on condensation reactions such as joining monomers by eliminating water from their molecules. Besides short-chain polyamides, short-chain polyesters were among his early products.
By removing water from the reaction vessel, he found he could make bigger-chain polymers with desirable properties. Although the early polyesters were disappointing, he found a winner in polyamide 66, which exhibited strength, elasticity and abrasion resistance. Initial work was to find a superior synthetic fiber rather than a molding resin. Consequently, early applications focused on toothbrush bristles, nylon stockings, parachute fabrics, ropes and military gear.
German chemist Otto Bayer led development of polyurethanes at I.G. Farben's laboratory in Leverkusen, Germany. Early intentions were to develop an alternative to nylon. Fibers and flexible foams were among the first uses. Germany used PU foam insulation for its V2 military rockets and some aircraft and military vehicles. After World War II ended, the insulation was used in beer kegs.
Roy Plunkett of DuPont discovered polytetrafluoroethylene by chance while trying to make a new chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant. DuPont patented the PTFE material in 1941 and called it Teflon in 1944. By 1950, DuPont was producing more than a million pounds per year of Teflon in Parkersburg, W.Va. An early, specialized application for PTFE was as a coating for valves and seals in Oak Ridge, Tenn., handling uranium hexafluoride in the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb during World War II. French engineer Marc Gregoire successfully coated a frying pan with the nonstick Teflon plastic in 1950.
Work began on glass-reinforced plastics.
PE was first processed in North America — in Toronto — as wire and cable jacketing.
Peter Hedgewick founded mold maker International Tool Ltd., a catalyst for the eventual proliferation of mold-building shops in Windsor, Ontario, in subsequent years.
William H. Willert invented the reciprocating injection screw. He received a patent for the concept in 1956.
Bayer chemist Hermann Schnell produced polycarbonate. At first it was made as a thin layer for use in tear-resistant photographic film. By the 1970s, Bayer was offering more than 60 grades of PC in more than 500 shades of color. Shatter resistance, light weight and processability have made PC a staple in a range of industries, from construction to medical products.
Polyimides were introduced commercially, eventually being sold as films, solid shapes and specialty adhesives.
The first PE Baggies and sandwich bags on a roll were introduced. PE dry cleaning bags soon followed. By 1966, plastic bags accounted for 25-30 percent of the U.S. market for bread packaging. In that year, plastic produce bags debuted in grocery stores. By 1974, retail merchandisers such as Sears, JCPenney and Montgomery Ward were switching to plastic bags from kraft paper.
Hoechst AG began commercial production of polypropylene following the availability of coordination catalysts pioneered by Ziegler and Natta about 1955 (see Nobel Prize sidebar). Coordination catalysts precisely align an incoming monomer molecule so that it joins to the polymer chain in a specific orientation. Before the use of such catalysts, propylene polymers had randomly ordered chains with limited usefulness. Ziegler-Natta catalysts allowed production of linear, orderly PP chains. The isotactic form of the PP chain is crystalline with strength properties that make it suited to a range of applications and processing technologies. In less than 12 years following PP's production in Germany, modern PP resin production in the U.S. grew from zero to 1 billion pounds by 1969.
Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. began producing high-speed injection molding presses.
Bayer AG developed thermoplastic polyurethanes, further expanding PU's usefulness
Ticona Polymerwerke began commercial production of acetal copolymer at Kelsterbach, Germany. Although formaldehyde polymers had been known for more than 100 years, the early versions were thermally unstable.
The New York Sanitation Department demonstrated that curbside pickup of plastic trash bags was cleaner, safer and quieter than metal can pickup. This began a shift to plastic can liners among consumers.
Lantech Inc. developed the first pallet stretch-wrapping machine in Louisville, Ky. The firm showcased the machine the next year at the American Packaging Industry Association Show (now Pack Expo). The machine quickly and efficiently secured boxes and other shapes to a pallet for subsequent shipment by truck. Based on pallet wrappers, Lantech estimates nearly 3 billion loads per year are shipped. At Pack Expo 2006, Lantech debuted a system that can wrap three pallets per minute, the fastest in the world, the company claims.
The first commercial system for manufacturing plastic grocery bags started operating. Four years later, the plastic grocery bag was widely introduced to supermarkets and began replacing kraft paper bags.
Biopol, a fully biodegradable plastic, was developed by ICI as a sidelight to research on creating protein from microorganisms. Although it showed promise during the 1973 and 1975 oil price shocks, interest in Biopol — polyhydroxybutyrate — waned when prices for oil and its many derivatives fell again.
Polyetheretherketone was developed.
Philips Electronics NV developed CDs for optical media storage. Polycarbonate was chosen as the main media substrate. Bayer, which helped in CD development, estimated that by 2003, more than 100 billion CDs had been made and one in three used the firm's polycarbonate.
Liquid-crystal polymers were introduced commercially.
Brampton Engineering Inc. made the first multilayer blown film die with replaceable elements.
Nearly half the supermarkets in the United States had recycling available for plastic bags.
Four out of five grocery bags used were plastic.