Serendipitous Invention – Teflon

Serendipitous Invention - TeflonIntroduction: The Three Princes of Serendib, where Serendip is the Classical Persian name for Sri Lanka, is a fairy tale in which the protagonists ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.’ Based on this, Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in 1754 to mean inventions or discoveries made by accident. Science and technology offer many anecdotes of serendipitous discoveries and inventions. Here is the fourth such story in a series about serendipitous, patented inventions.

The name Teflon® immediately brings to mind nonstick skillets. To the diet conscious – visions of oil-less roasted savouries, and to those who do the dishes – ease of completing their jobs. The name Teflon is applied appreciatively, or even enviously, to describe a smooth operator and pejoratively to those to whom no blame sticks despite their many misdeeds. All this, for the tradename of a product that was invented by accident.

Dr Roy Plunkett was a chemist at DuPont®. In 1938, he was conducting research to develop a new refrigerant, working in a company called Kinetic Chemicals, Inc.®, a partnership founded by General Motors® and DuPont. He was working with gaseous tetrafluoroethylene – a colourless and odourless gas. He intended to find a way to polymerize (the chemical process in which monomers are joined together to form polymers) it into a solid substance. He had stored a small amount of tetrafluoroethylene in a cylinder.

One day he found that the cylinder looked empty. His curiosity was piqued and he decided to investigate. Upon investigation, Plunkett and his team discovered that tetrafluoroethylene had polymerized into a waxy white substance. This unexpected solid was found to be extremely slippery, chemically inert, and had a high melting point. They realized that they had stumbled upon a new synthetic polymer and obtained a patent on it. They named the new polymer polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)

DuPont, however, was not sure what to do with this new material until the early 1940s. During World War II, Teflon proved to be invaluable for military applications. Its non-stick and heat-resistant properties made it ideal for use in various industrial and military equipment, including seals, gaskets, and valves. It was then that PTFE, branded as Teflon®, began to find its place in the market.

Teflon also played an important, though a secondary, role in creating the atomic bomb in the Manhattan project. Uranium hexafluoride gas was used in the gaseous diffusion process for enriching uranium. This highly corrosive and reactive gas destroyed conventional materials that came into contact with it. Teflon was found to be ideal, due to its unprecedented resistance to chemicals and corrosion, for coating the pipes, valves, and seals handling this gas. Some historians estimate that without Teflon, the development of the first atomic bombs could have been considerably delayed – by at least 6 to 12 months.

Though Plunkett invented Teflon, the idea of using it for non-stick cookware came neither from him nor from DuPont. A French engineer Marc Grégoire had been using Teflon on his fishing gear. In the 1950s, his wife suggested coating pans with Teflon. It was this that lead to the creation of the first Teflon-coated non-stick pans. It was sold under the brand name TefalTM. The non-stick properties and heat resistance of Teflon revolutionized cooking, baking, and cleaning up afterwards.

Over the years, Teflon has found its way into a wide range of applications beyond cookware. It is used in industrial coatings, electrical insulation, medical devices, and even as a lubricant for machinery.

Author: J L Anil Kumar

First Published by: Lexology here