2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the discovery of Teflon, the slippery substance that most of us know as the coating on our cooking pans. The material’s invention was a happy accident, and a story most people don’t know about.
Read on to learn about the history of Teflon polymer and how it’s revolutionized many industries since its creation.
The Father of Teflon
Roy Plunkett was a 27-year-old American research chemist working for E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company in Deepwater, New Jersey in 1938. A veteran of the company for only two years (he graduated with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Manchester University in 1936), he was trying to create a non-toxic refrigerant for the company when he instead stumbled upon a new chemical reaction.
Plunkett was experimenting with a gas chemical called tetrafluoroethylene and noticed that it had stopped flowing inside its pressure bottle. This occurred before the bottle’s weight could drop and register as empty. Curious about what was causing the weight, Plunkett sawed the bottle open.
Inside was a white powdery substance that proved to be chemically inert. This means it did not react with any other substances. It was also very slippery.
Teflon’s chemical name became polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE. Its molecular structure is made up of spirals of carbon atoms each attached to two fluorine atoms.
This carbon-fluorine bond is very tight, which is why a Teflon surface can easily resist food, water, and other substances. It also acts as a superior protectant. In fact, not even a gecko lizard — an animal known for its incredible grip — can climb its way out of a Teflon coated pan.
With Plunkett’s exciting discovery, several industries immediately recognized Teflon’s potential and started putting it to good use.
The Happy Pan
Ten years after Plunkett’s discovery, DuPont was producing over two million pounds of Teflon annually. One of its first applications was as a coating for valves and seals in the Manhattan Project. But it wouldn’t be long before it was about to make preparing food a little easier for cooks and housewives everywhere.
It was the wife of a French engineer who requested that he test Teflon on pans. Marc Gregoire had been using Teflon on his fishing gear but followed his wife’s advice, creating the first PTFE-coated, non-stick cooking pan. Soon the pans were sold in Europe under the brand name Tefal, which combined Teflon with the word aluminum.
In 1961 entrepreneur Marion Trozzolo introduced an American-made Teflon pan to U.S consumers. His company, Laboratory Plasticware Fabricators, manufactured “The Happy Pan”, which was packaged with a free spatula.
Trozzolo’s product was a big hit with American consumers, and an original Happy Pan is on display in the Smithsonian Institution. Today, Teflon is applied to bakeware and small electrical appliances such as grills, electric fry pans, and waffle makers.
Other Teflon Polymer Applications
There probably isn’t a single industry that hasn’t been impacted by the creation of Teflon. It can be found in hospital catheters, ski bindings, and even dental fillings. NASA has used Teflon in several space craft components and in astronauts’ suits.
One of the most popular uses for Teflon today is as a protective coating for fabric. Because it is waterproof, it’s perfect for making raincoats and outerwear.
Teflon fabric protector resists stains, dirt, oil, and moisture and has been used in the manufacturing of furniture, clothing, handbags, and more. It does not interfere with the texture, color, or breathability of the fabric it’s applied to.
A major benefit of owning fabric products coated with Teflon is a reduced need to wash and dry clean them as often. This reduces water usage as well as general wear and tear on the clothing item.
The Sky’s the Limit
In the past few years, Teflon has been added to house paints, as a coating on bolts for smoother fastening, and used as a “dry” lubricant for bicycle parts instead of the usual grease.
Where will Teflon be used next? We’ll just to wait and see what the future holds but judged on its current applications, the polymer’s usage has no limits.
Is Teflon Safe?
Teflon has been a subject of debate because it’s a man-made substance and chemical. However, the general consensus is it’s completely safe to use, as long as you use products coated with it the right way. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that there are no known risks to consumers for using Teflon products.
Up until 2013 Teflon cookware contained a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). It was found to contribute to several health problems including kidney and liver disease and thyroid problems. It is no longer used in the manufacturing of Teflon.
You will still need to protect your Teflon cookware from being overheated. The polymer will break down when the surface temperature reaches 570 degrees Fahrenheit. To be on the safe side, cookware and bakeware manufacturers advise not using Teflon coated products inside ovens or on stoves that reach 500 degrees or more.
If that happens, Teflon fumes can make someone sick. For most foods and recipes this isn’t an issue because most top out around 475 degrees. But what if your pan gets scratched and some of those particles made their way into your mouth?
Fortunately, it’s been found that accidentally ingesting PTFE particles causes no harm. However, because Teflon can be easily scratched, proper cleaning and care are recommended. Use a gentle sponge instead of a steel wool or scrubbing pad.
When your Teflon cookware starts to show signs of wear such as flaking or chipping, it’s time to replace it. Keep your kitchen well ventilated, and avoid preheating empty pans. Put a little oil or food in them first, because empty pans can reach a high temperature quickly.
Roy Plunkett’s Legacy
In 1951, the city of Philadelphia awarded Plunkett the John Scott Medal for his invention that promoted the “comfort, welfare, and happiness of humankind”. He was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1990, DuPont was recognized by President George Bush with the National Medal of Technology.
Plunkett passed away in 1994 at the age of 83, but his contribution to chemistry and the world lives on.
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