History of Plastics in Industry

January 10, 2014
History of Plastics in Industry

While it goes without saying that plastics can be found virtually everywhere—in cell phones, toys, certain pieces of furniture, car and machinery parts, etc.—it would be no surprise to most of us if currently only few persons know of this substance’s history. It’s curious that we have no knowledge of this—and how regrettable—for important industries, couldn’t have been created without plastics.

It began in the 1800s, when American inventor Charles Goodyear accidentally invented vulcanization.

He discovered this process of basically making rubber more durable, during his five-year search of a rubber more stable than those available then. (Rubber itself isn’t useful, because not only does this substance eventually lose its ability to return to its original shape, it also becomes sticky when heated.)

Vulcanization made possible the derivation of thermoset materials—resin or plastic—from rubber. The most important derivatives are Bakelite, polyethylene, and polypropylene. Bakelite is the first fully synthetic thermoset. It was synthesized early in the 1900s by Belgian-born American Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland. It is currently being used in wire insulation; automotive components; and industrial, electrical-related applications. Polyethylene—currently the most common type of plastic, which is used primarily in packaging—was discovered by Imperial Chemical Industries researchers Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett. Polypropylene is a type of plastic used in automotive components; laboratory equipment; packaging and labeling; polymer banknotes; textiles; stationery; loudspeakers; plastic parts; and various reusable containers. This derivative was discovered in 1954 by Italian chemist and Nobel laureate Giulio Natta. Up to now, none of the said products could be produced without the derivatives.

More and more useful rubber derivatives are being created even after all these decades following the invention of vulcanization. Elastomers are one of them. An elastomer is an elastic substance similar to rubber. From a technical point of view, elastomers have been described as substances that bridge the gap between rigid plastics and natural rubbers. Several companies around the world produce products made of or contain elastomers. Those products include automotive components; mining and industry steel components; rollers; wheel pulleys; castor wheels; bushes; seals; engine mounts; pipeline ‘pigs’; forming pads; gaskets; timber handling-components; scrapers; stock shapes; and various manufactured products.

Could anyone ever imagine a world without, say, vibrating screens, scraper blades, and conveyor belts for the mining industry? Some of us might shudder at the mere mention of one. But even if you now know of its history and how important it is to industries, what good are these to you if you don’t seek quality plastics when needed? It would be best to seek the help of a reliable plastics purveyor when you are in such need, unless you wouldn’t mind putting yourself at risk of wasting your money on substandard plastics.