History of Polypropylene – A Timeline

It was not until the last one hundred years or so that plastic became the name for a category of substances called polymers. Just for fun, let’s look at at the history of polypropylene, a plastic polymer.

So what defines a polymer? According to the Science History Institute, the word polymer means “of many parts.” Actually, polymers consist of long chains of molecules. Polymers abound in nature. Cellulose, the material that makes up the cell walls of plants, furnishes us with a good example of a very common natural polymer.  

Polypropylene is a Polymer

In the mid-1900s, scientists learned to make polymers from a process that uses carbon atoms from fossil fuels. These man-made polymers chain together atoms in repeating patterns. Accordingly, their repeating patterns extend much longer than the chains that occur in natural polymers. These long chains, and their repeating patterns in which they are arranged, make man-made polymers stronger, more lightweight, and even more pliable than their natural counterparts. One plastic polymer in particular serves as our focus today. Polypropylene. 

The Origin of the Word “Plastic”

Before we look at the history of the plastic known as polypropylene, let’s think about the origin of the word plastic itselfOne might not think that a common word such as plastic would be more than 400 years old. In fact, 200 years before the first man-made plastic, parkesine, came to light in the mid-1800s, the word plastic was used to refer to something that could be easily molded, something that was pliable, or easily shaped.

Interestingly, our English word “plastic” derives from the Latin word plasticus and the Greek word plastikos, both meaning “able to be molded, pertaining to molding.” Most likely, Greeks used plastikos to describe unhardened versions of clay.” (Source: Science History Institute)

Now, back to polypropylene, and a look at its historical timeline.

The Value of Plastic Products Made from Polypropylene

A synthetic resin, polypropylene arises from the buildup (polymerization) of propylene – a gaseous hydrocarbon obtained from petroleum. Makers of plastic products mold or extrude polypropylene into many offerings. Fortunately for them, these plastic products demonstrate toughness and pliability. Their value comes from their light weight and their heat resistance. In addition, polypropylene gets woven into fibers for a variety of uses in household and industrial textiles.

The History of Polypropylene - The Timeline

Alexander Parkes
(Photo Credit: Science Museum)
1862
Naming the invention after himself, Alexander Parkes proudly acquainted the world with its first man-made plastic, “Parkesine.” Making the presentation at the London International Exhibition, Parkes unveiled a substance he promoted as an alternative to ivory and horn. Parkes' efforts to invent a synthetic substitute for shellac used in waterproofing led to his discovery of "parkesine."
(Source: Plastics Industry Association)
Alexander Parkes
(Photo Credit: Science Museum)
John Wesley Hyatt
1869
John Wesley Hyatt invented the first synthetic polymer in 1869 in response to a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for a substitute for ivory, the substance used in the increasingly popular sport billiards. Hyatt treated cellulose, derived from cotton fiber, with camphor, to discover a plastic that could be crafted into a variety of shapes. This new substance could be crafted to simulate natural substances like tortoiseshell, horn, linen, and ivory. Hyatt's discovery expanded man's manufacturing abilities beyond the limitations of nature.
(Source: Science History Institute)
Dr. Leo Baekeland
(Photo Credit: This is Plastics)
1907
While Alexander Parkes' invention in 1862, Parkesine, was created from organic cellulose, in 1907, Dr. Leo Bakeland created a world-changing plastic that was fully synthetic. Bakeland named the plastic after himself, calling it "Bakelite." This was a defining historical event that marked the advent of the modern plastics industry.
(Source: Plastics Industry Association)
Dr. Leo Baekeland
(Photo Credit: This is Plastics)
Hermann Staudinger
(Photo credit: The Famous People)
1920
Hermann Staudinger was a German organic chemist and a professor of chemistry in Zurich, Switzerland. Staudinger demonstrated the existence of macromolecules, which he characterized as polymers. He would later receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work.
Hermann Staudinger
(Photo credit: The Famous People)
Frank Phillips
(Photo credit: Pinterest)
1925
In Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Frank Phillips, the founder of Phillips Petroleum Company was encouraged to investigate additional uses for natural gas liquids by Phillips' Research director George Oberfell.
(Source: ACS Chemistry for Life)
Frank Phillips
(Photo credit: Pinterest)
Phillips Petroleum 1930s
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
1927
Phillips Petroleum, under the guidance of Oberfell, established one of the world's first hydrocarbon research laboratories. The research moved the petroleum company into new uses of fossil fuels and raw materials for the chemical industries. (Photo credit: Pinterest)
Phillips Petroleum 1930s
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Imperial Chemical Industries
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
1933
In March of 1933, R.O Gibson and E.W. Fawcett's, two organic chemists working for the Imperial Chemical Industries Research Laboratory in the United Kingdom, were testing various chemicals. Much to the delight of the chemists, the substance they were testing would become a industry-changing substance that would revolutionize the world. The substance was Polyethylene.
(Source: Global Plastic Sheeting)
Imperial Chemical Industries
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
1933-1945
A staggering number of plastic and chemical innovations emerged in the period surrounding World War II as the need for synthetic, lightweight, and flexible goods increased. These included Polyethylene (PE), Polystyrene (PS), Nylon, and expanded polystyrene (EPS).
1951
Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, entered the plastics business in 1951, following a discovery by researchers J. Paul Hogan and Robert L. Banks. The two researchers discovered the catalyst that would transform ethylene and propylene into solid polymers. The plastics that resulted — crystalline polypropylene and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) — are now the core of a multibillion-dollar, global industry.
(Source: ACS Chemistry for Life)
1954
Phillips introduced HDPE in 1954, under the brand name Marlex® polyethylene. Company marketing executives were wildly optimistic, expecting that the product would be a big hit and that the Phillips would not be able to keep it on the shelves. But the market had become large and diverse and Marlex®, then produced in only one grade, was unsuitable for some applications. Inventories piled up in the warehouses. The turnaround came from an unlikely source — a large ring of plastic tubing called the hula hoop. This children's toy became so immensely popular that the demand for Marlex® soared, dominating the plant's output for nearly six months. (Source: ACS Chemistry for Life)
(Source: ACS Chemistry for Life)
Giullio Natta
(Photo credit: Nobel Prize)
1955
The history of polypropylene took another step in 1955 when German chemist Karl Rehn and an Italian chemist, Giulio Natta, developed a method for creating molecular chains using catalysts—substances that hasten the chemical process—without affecting the end-products.
(Source: ThoughtCo)
Giullio Natta
(Photo credit: Nobel Prize)
1956
Phillips management nurtured the new plastics from laboratory discovery in 1951 to commercial-scale production in 1956—less than six years—no small feat for an oil company new to the plastics industry!
(Source: ACS Chemistry for Life)

 

Polypropylene and Its Use Today

Lone Star Chemical plastic manufacturingFrequently, polypropylene is melt-spun into fibers. “Polypropylene fiber is a major factor in home furnishings such as upholstery and indoor-outdoor carpets. Numerous industrial end uses exist as well, including rope and cordage, disposable nonwoven fabrics for diapers and medical applications, and nonwoven fabrics for ground stabilization and reinforcement in construction and road paving. These applications take advantage of the toughness, resilience, water resistance, and chemical inertness of the polymer. ” (Source: Britannica)

In general, the plastics we use today are well-known for their long-life, their strength, and their flexibility for design. There are myriad creative and beneficial applications in sectors ranging from medicine to consumer products. Plastics find usage in technology, aerospace, construction, and the automotive industry. Indeed, you could probably lay your hands on something made of plastic without taking more than five steps from where you are. Plastics, that substance that proved itself “able to be molded,” has molded a world of refinement, sophistication, comfort, innovation, and ever-expanding progress.

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