PLASTICS REVOLUTIONIZE AMERICAN INDUSTRY (Sep, 1936)
PLASTICS REVOLUTIONIZE AMERICAN INDUSTRY
Out of Test Tubes Come Man-Made Products Smashing Traditional Fabrication Methods and Making Cheaply Available Shining Articles of Surpassing Utility.
AS THRILLING as any Polar exploration is the day-by-day chemistry in America’s laboratories. Here intrepid men with test tubes and beakers forge into the vast uncharted lands of science. More money is spent in this ceaseless venture than was ever dreamed of by Byrd or Stefansson. The cost is reckoned in millionsâ€”even, as with radium, in human lifeâ€”but the gains are worth the battle. For out of this pioneering comes new wonders to revolutionize industry and add comfort and enjoyment to living.
The average American gets up in the morning, switches on the light, shaves, has . breakfast, buttons his coat, hops into his car and is off to work. In that short morning hour, usually without realizing it, he has many times made use of a peculiar substance that not so long ago was unknown. That substance is the plastic, a brilliant new child of modern research. The electric light switch is plastic. The razor and its case are probably plasticâ€”as are the handles on the breakfast cutlery, the buttons on the coat, the knobs on the instrument panel of the car. Bright, sturdy and useful articles are all of themâ€”yet they were made from sour milk, from the fuzz of cottonseeds, from carbolic acid or from thin air. All are recent triumphs of the laboratory.
New as they are, plastics have several decades of history behind them. Celluloid, one of the first widely known plastics, is familiar to all; and Bakelite has long been indispensable in telephonic, electric and radio construction. Yet after these had been on the market for years there sprang a new and versatile aggregation of plastics that brought new moldability and workability, new color and more uses. Though of somewhat different formulae, and suited for different uses, all have two things in common. All are plasticâ€”capable of being molded or cast. And all go through the chemical process known as polymerization, in which the molecules of the substance combine by enlargement of molecular structure.
After Dr. Leo Baekeland discovered Bakelite almost by accident in 1909 when he was trying to make a fusible synthetic resin, the creation of new plastics slumped. For years Bakelite and Celluloid were the only important ones used in America, and each had definite limitations. Celluloid, admirable as it was for many uses, was highly inflammable; and Bakelite, despite its utilitarian , excellence, could not then come into popular use because of its cost and blackness.
America needed a popular plasticâ€”a substance cheap, fire-resistant, and capable of taking on beautiful colors so that it could be used in the drawing-room as well as the telephone exchange. Not until the last decade did such a product appear.
Beetle, Catalin, Durez, Plaskon, Tenite, Resinox, Unyte, and many othersâ€”all are new names, all trade names of brilliant plastics made for thousands of uses. Outwardly similar, they are chemically different. Lustrous, vari-colored Catalin, for instance, cannot take the place of Bakelite in telephone and radio; nor can black Bakelite replace Catalin in the construction of toilet articles and chessmen, where beauty is needed and dialectricity is not. Roughly, plastic can be divided into three groups: Those made from vegetables, from animal, and from mineral matter.
Celluloseâ€”the fiber forming the cell wall of all plants, but found in its purest form in cottonâ€”is the old and the new titan in plastics. From this cheap and plentiful vegetable base came the earlier Celluloid; and it now makes Pyralin, Tenite and cellulose acetate. Though it will burn slowly, cellulose acetate is not highly inflammable as was the older Celluloid. Buyers of Cord, Auburn and Hudson cars this year have steering wheels made of this newest plastic. Sheets of Pyralin one-fiftieth of an inch thick are sandwiched between two thin panes of glass to make modern automobile safety glass. And tough, gleaming Tenite now makes thousands of fountain pen barrels, as well as many other semi-transparent things.
It seems a far cry from cow’s milk to buttons, yet chemistry has hurdled the distance. America’s button industryâ€”a large producer concentrating on a small but vital productâ€”relies largely on milk for its basic material. Casein, made from milk, is chemically combined with formaldehyde to form a lustrous plastic that is giving buttons a more prominent place in wearing apparel.
Mineral plastics are composed chiefly of phenol (carbolic acid) combined with formaldehyde. Of these the well-known Bakelite and a few others are molded into desired shapes, are black in color, and therefore are largely restricted for indus-trial use. Others such as Catalin are made from similar basic materials but are cast into sheets, rods and tubes of brilliant colors. This bulk stock can be fabricated by cutting or by turning on an ordinary lathe, resulting in colorful cutlery handles, knobs and novelties.
Among the most useful of the phenol plastics is the laminated type, such as Formica, in which canvas or other fabric is pressed into the material for greater strength and insulation. Modern motor cars can thank laminated phenolic formaldehyde for a large degree of their quietness. Gears of this substance have widely supplanted steel because they wear remarkably and do not clatter. In the new ocean giant, Queen Mary, too, is $100,000 worth of decorative material made from fire-resistant American Formica.
One of the newest compounds to startle the market is the urea plastic, a mixture of nitrogenâ€”snatched from the airâ€”with carbon dioxide and formaldehyde. Unlike the others this is manufactured first as a powder and is then molded. Grocery scales made by the Toledo Scale Company used to be housed in cumbrous metal that made them weigh 160 pounds. The company substituted Plaskon, a urea plastic, for its metal housings; in so doing it reduced the weight of the scales to 55 pounds and trebled its sales!
Industrial war is the inevitable result of a successful new material. When one considers that many industrial units formerly made of several pieces of metal bolted together can now be molded in one piece of plastic, thus saving the cost of assembly and painting, the answer is obvious.
Yet there are many uses which plastics cannot as yet fill, because of mechanical limitations. Will research remedy that by producing still newer materials that will make beautiful and inexpensive furniture, automobile bodiesâ€”even houses? Research is trying, that is certain; and seldom does it fail. Meanwhile, the art of fabricating plastics is advancing steadily. The new automatic injection method of molding, in which a plastic almost ready to harden is forced under pressure into the molds and can be ejected in a few seconds, a finished product, is a case in point. By this method, too, whole sets of buttons, typewriter keys and other similar objects can be molded at once, instead of laboriously one at a time.
There is no telling what may happen next in this lusty infant industry. Molders now produce plastics in sizes ranging from tiny, jewel-like earring adornments to nine-foot, 4,000-gallon water tanks. The Ford Motor Company uses oil pressed from soy beans in the enamel finishes for its cars; and Ford is now experimenting with a plastic made of the soy bean meal, after the oil has been removed, mixed with formaldehyde. It is an exciting technological race; and modern plasticsâ€”those already in use and those still bubbling in test tubesâ€”may well be the source of a new era of prosperity.
Paint, incidentally, gives a startling example of research’s ability to jolt industry into new channels. Twenty years ago automobiles hastened through the assembly line only to languish for five weeks in the finishing shop. Today, because of the high development of nitrocellulose lacquersâ€”made from plant fiberâ€”cars are finished from the bare metal to the final polish in one day! That development was a rude awakening to a sleeping paint industry, which was suddenly forced to scrap old equipment and hurriedly reorganize to meet new demands. Plastics have already caused a similar re-gearing of basic industries, and undoubtedly will cause more.
Cellulose, which exploded paint theories and makes excellent plastics, is a marvelously versatile substance. It goes into the manufacture of such widely separated things as raincoats, cements, substitutes for leather, and the film which makes the modern motion picture possible. Into Cellophane it goesâ€”and in a decade enough Cel-ophane has been manufactured to encircle the earth with a band 200 miles wide. It makes rayon, and a rayon cord as strong as structural steel of the same cross-section promises to double the life of automobile tires. Such things don’t just happen; they are brought about by ceaseless, untiring research.
The laboratory has changed rubber from a sticky, ungovernable substance into a tough and sturdy one; it has transformed the tire from a mental and physical hazard into something seldom given a thought. Yet in automobiles it is generally the rubber parts that require replacement first; chemical tougheners have worked wonders, but there is still room for improvement.
It may seem strange that the Dupont laboratories, largely instrumental in bringing rubber to its present dependability, should now be engaged in perfecting synthetic rubber. Artificial rubber has long been the ardent dream of many a chemist. Why aim for a substitute when the natural product is so cheap and so much improved? The answer is largely an economic one. America gets its rubber from abroad. During the past decade, through foreign manipulation, rubber’s price has gone as high as $1.29 a pound. Chemists saw that challenge. If they could do the impossibleâ€”produce synthetic rubber at a reasonable priceâ€”they could free the country from its dependence on foreign supply.
Research has done just that, using acetylene as a raw material. Dupont chemists, aided by the work of a Notre Dame professor, Father J. A. Nieuwland, have made artificial rubber that excels the natural product in many respects. Called “Duprene,” this substance is already being manufactured on a commercial scale. An acre of rubber trees yields approximately 500 pounds of rubber in 500 years; but an acre-large factory can turn out 200 tons of man-made rubber in five hours! And the raw materials, including sulphur, salt and natural gas, are well-nigh inexhaustible. Natural rubber’s weaknessâ€”its deterioration from contact with heat, oil, acids and alkaloids, is largely removed in “Duprene.” Though it now costs a $1 a pound, six times the price of rubber, “Duprene” has already found a market in gaskets, tubing, and many other uses where rubber is exposed to chemical decay.
To those who remember camphor as a smelly substance applied in treating colds, it may be a surprise to know that camphor is an essential ingredient in pyroxylin plastics and safety glass. The only source of natural camphor is the Japanese island of Formosa. In short, we were long dependent on one small spot on the globe, subject to the vagaries of shipping, tariff, and the possibility of war, for an important product.
It is under these circumstances that research works at its best. No time is wasted in devising substitutes for natural products when they are cheap and plentiful. But let there be a threat of scarcity or high price, and immediately all the guns of science are pointed at a synthetic. So it was with camphor. In 1934, after over $3,000,000 had been spent in various laboratories in a vain hunt for artificial camphor, chemists of the Newport Company derived an excellent synthetic from American turpentine. This new synthetic is now helping make the nine million pounds of safety glass the automobile industry will require in 1936.
The cunning sandwich of materials that compose safety glass is a strange union of man’s newest with man’s oldest chemical achievement. Glass goes far back into ancient history. Yet the effort expended by plastic research is matched by the glass chemist’s constant endeavor to transform his material with new life and new uses. The Corning Glass Works recently completed tests aimed at producing a material long considered impossibleâ€”a glass that would endure the terrific heat of direct flame on top of kitchen stoves.
During these trials, scientists with doctor’s degress became cooks. Glass made from 1,500 different formulae was tested. To reproduce actual kitchen conditions, these eminent men presided over the frying of 18,000 pounds of potatoes in glassware over many kinds of wood, coal, oil, gas and electric stoves!
As a direct result of this ordeal by fire came Pyrex glassware that defies flame and can be used as a serving dish on the table. More that that, laboratory workers cataloged the performance of 1,500 glass formulae, and increased immeasurably their knowledge of the product.
From the same laboratory has come fibrous glass, spun to a fineness seven to fifty times that of a human hair. A glass wool made up of these fibers resembles cotton batting, and is used extensively as insulation in ships and electric refrigerators, where vibration causes ordinary insulating material to settle. In addition, these superfine fibers have been wound around electric wires for insulation with excellent results; and they have been twisted into yarn and woven into textiles!
Today we wonder at the marvel of plastics, at the adaptability of glass. Tomorrow may see still a new material, with new advantages. It has been said that the pen is mightier than the sword but the fragile glass test tube bids fair to outrank them both.