Leo Baekeland and the Beginning of the Plastic Age

Bakelite Billiard Balls
Image: Chemical Heritage Foundation at Flickr

On November 14, 1863, Belgian-born American chemist Leo Henricus Arthur Baekeland was born. His invention of Bakelite, an inexpensive, nonflammable, versatile, and popular plastic, marked the beginning of the modern plastics industry.

Leo Baekeland completed his doctorate at the University of Ghent and taught for a few years. He continued his studies of chemistry in New York City, England, Scotland, and Germany. He was then persuaded to stay in the United States and he began working at a New York photographic supply house, which inspired him for later developments, especially Velox, an improved photographic paper that could be developed in gaslight rather than sunlight. [1]

The Velox photographic paper was sold to Kodak and Baekeland was able to maintain a home laboratory and hire the assistant Nathaniel Thurlow. Both knew of the great potential phenol-formaldehyde resins and they read about the experiments by Adolf von Baeyer and Werner Kleeberg. They reported that when he mixed phenol, a common disinfectant, with formaldehyde, it formed a hard, insoluble material that ruined his laboratory equipment, because once it has formed, it could not be removed. The produced substance was described as a hard amorphous mass, infusible and insoluble and thus of little use. Further scientists, including Adolf Luft performed several experiments in order to create a commercially viable plastic molding compound. However, none of them was known to have created a useful product.

At that time, many chemists began recognizing that many of the natural resins and fibers useful for coatings, adhesives, and woven fabrics were polymers even though its molecular structure was not completely known. When Baekeland and his assistant started to investigate the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde, they produced ‘Novolak’, but unfortunately, this was never really successful. The scientists moved on to developing a phenol-formaldehyde binder for asbestos. They managed to carefully control the pressure and temperature applied to an intermediate made from the two reagents, he produced a polymer that produced a hard moldable plastic when it was mixed with certain fillers and Bakelite was born. [1,2, 3]

Bakelite had the advantage, that it could be molded quickly. Also, it was known for its extraordinarily high resistance and thus, became a popular material for the emerging electrical and automobile industries. Soon, Bakelite was integrated in numerous areas of living. Jewellery was made out of it as well as telephones, or even billiard balls (see picture above). [1]

At yovisto, you may be interested in a talk by Diana Cohen on ‘Tough truths about plastic pollution‘.

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