Saturday, March 12, 2016

I love Bakelite.

Bakelite is one the first plastic ever to be invented. It was developed by Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland in New York in 1907.

Baekeland was an inventor who'd already become immensely wealthy from inventing Velox, the world's first commercially successful photographic paper which could accept artificial light.

Selling the patent required Baekeland to not engage in photographic research for 20 years. So Baekeland turned his attention to another area: synthetic resins. At the time, the only resin available was a natural one: Shellac. But shellac was made from the excretions of the lac beetles, and supplies were very low and costly. A synthetic resin was needed.

Baekeland first tried strengthening wood by impregnating it with a synthetic resin, rather than coating it. He actually invented a resin, Novolak, but it was inferior and did not sell well. He started out investigating phenol-formaldehyde products. Chemists had been investigating how phenol (a carbon-hydrogen molecule attached to an oxygen-hydrogen molecule) interacted with formaldehyde (two hydrogen atoms and an ionized oxygen molecule bonded to carbon). A bewildering array of materaisl had been generated by applying various temperatures, pressures, and heat to these chemicals, but nothing useful had been forthcoming.

Baekeland was attraced to an 1891 experiment in which German chemist Werner Kleeberg had created an exceptionally hard resin. But it released a lot of gas, which left it porous and brittle. Other chemists had attempted to add camphor, alcohol, or glycol to the process to prevent the outgassing. This worked, except that the additives had to be removed by evaporation -- which left the product cracked and warped. Baekeland and his assistant, Nathaniel Thurlow, first tried the same approach -- because Thurlow had invented a synthetic camphor. But this proved fruitless. Baekeland then abandoned the additive approach. Instead, he tried a new approach: Controlling the outgassing reaction itself. Research into phenol-formaldehyde products in the past had shown that the chemicals combined and differently depending on how much heat, temperature, and pressure was applied. Shellac was cured using heat and pressure, and Baekeland reasoned that this might be the solution instead of additives. In 1907, Baekeland began systematically altering these variables.

Within a few months, Baekeland had invented Bakelite. By heating phenol and formaldehyde to a temperature of 300F under a pressure of 100 pounds per square inch, the outgassing could be controlled. It could be applied as a varnish and then cured, or injected into a mold and cured.

Bakelite has a number of important properties. It is resistant to heat, scratching, solvents, and electricity, and it has a smooth, glossy finish that looks pleasing to the eye.

Art Deco, Futurism, and Streamline Moderne emphasized smooth curves and the general lack of sharp edges. Bakelite was therefore ideally suited to the forms of these art styles. Because Bakelite remained structurally sound and retained its shape even when very thin, and was translucent, Bakelite could be backlit and appear to glow in a way that was pleasing to artists working in these genres. And because Bakelite was nonconductive, it could be used extensively in electronics.

Although other plastics soon followed, Bakelite became the most widely used plastic of the Art Deco age. Bakelite items from this period are highly prized for their color, lack of scratching, and inventive use.

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