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The Golden Age Of Plastics In C&EN

by Alexander H. Tullo
December 13, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 50

Credit: C&EN
Mining the treasure trove of C&EN Archives.
Credit: C&EN
Mining the treasure trove of C&EN Archives.

For the past month, one of the big perquisites of working for this magazine has been unfettered access to C&EN ARCHIVES, a searchable database built through herculean efforts: compiling PDFs of all the pages of every C&EN print issue since 1923 and digitally scanning all but the past few years’ worth.

I immediately spent hours perusing the archives, printing articles and scurrying into the office of Assistant Managing Editor Michael McCoy to show him my treasures. At first, he was as amazed and amused as I was. Then I started annoying him. He was eventually relieved when I suggested writing a Newscripts column about some of the things that I found, which meant turning my time searching the archive into actual work for the magazine.

Perhaps the most thrilling thing I found in C&EN Archives is in the “Among Chemists” section on page 10 of the March 20, 1928, issue:

“Wallace H. Carothers has resigned his instructorship at Harvard University, to accept a position with E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., where he will engage in fundamental research in organic chemistry at the Experimental Station, Wilmington, Del.”

This turned out to be one of the most consequential appointments in the history of polymers. Carothers and his team went on to do seminal work at DuPont in neoprene, polyester, and of course, nylon 6,6.

In 1951, a scientist at the now-defunct Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) took umbrage with the characterization in a C&EN article that ICI’s materials were “unsatisfactory” for radar cable insulation. As the lore goes, scientists from ICI perfected a practical high-pressure process in 1939 to make polyethylene (low-density polyethylene, as it is known today), and the Allies quickly employed the material for wire insulation in radar systems, helping win World War II.

“Throughout the war the quality of polythene for radar cable insulation was never in doubt,” R. A. Banks wrote in a letter that appeared on page 3451 of C&EN’s Aug. 20, 1951, issue. By the way, “polythene” is no typo. “Should it be called polythene or polyethylene or polymethylene or polymethamer?” C&EN’s Sept. 1, 1958, “News-scripts” column asked (page 160). “The battle was still raging in Great Britain the last time we looked.”

The 1950s were the salad days of polyolefins. “Two leading Italian scientists have arrived in the U.S. to discuss the details of their latest research achievement—polypropylene,” C&EN reported on June 18, 1956 (page 2980). “On hand with samples of film, fiber, and molded products made from the new plastic are Giulio Natta of Milan Polytechnical Institute and Piero Giustiniani, managing director of Montecatini.”

Natta went on to share a Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Karl Ziegler in 1963 for their work in polymers. The C&EN article practically invites you to imagine Natta landing at Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport) carrying a portfolio of salesman samples.

Of course, it was two Phillips Petroleum chemists, J. Paul Hogan and Robert L. Banks, who first made polypropylene in 1951. They weren’t recognized for their achievement for 30 years, C&EN’s Stephen Stinson reported in a March 9, 1987, article (page 30).

The pair at Phillips did get credit for their work in coming up with a low-pressure process to make high-density polyethylene. The race was on for such a thing in the 1950s because of the promise of stiffer plastics made with a cheaper process. An item in “ConC&ENtrates” on page 1161 of the March 21, 1955, C&EN read, the “hottest news in plastics is low-pressure, low-temperature process for polyethylene.”


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