TEFLON

 A Tale

HUI-LEE OOI is a PhD candidate at Polytechnique School of Montreal in Computer Engineering

HUI-LEE OOI is a PhD candidate at Polytechnique School of Montreal in Computer Engineering

by Hui Lee Ooi

Perhaps best known as the non-stick coating of frying pan and sealing tape, Teflon is highly prevalent nowadays in our daily life.

The polymer, also known as polytetrafluoroethylene has unique combination of properties as it is very slick and slippery in addition to having high melting point.

It is stable at very low temperature and yet extremely resistant to corrosion, which makes it perfect choice as coating for machines subjecting to heat, wear and friction.

Its dielectric property has been popularly exploited in the industry such that it is used in about 50% of productions in wiring for aerospace and computer applications [1].

Among its many applications in the industries, the highly versatile material is even used in weaving socks as the low friction material provides protection to the foot from blisters [2].

Among its many applications in the industries, the highly versatile material is even used in weaving socks as the low friction material provides protection to the foot from blisters [2].

Indeed, the use of Teflon is so widespread such that it could be hard to imagine our life without it. But once upon a time, nobody even know such material exists! In fact, Teflon was a purely accidental discovery when a young scientist named Roy Plunkett was working on something else in his lab [2-4].

Back in 1938, 27-year-old Plunkett was working for a company called Du Pont after getting his Phd degree. Plunkett’s expertise lies in refrigerants and he was tasked to synthesize a new form of refrigerants that is non-toxic and non-flammable [2-4]. Plunkett and his assistant were experimenting with one potential alternative refrigerant called tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) by adding hydrochloric acid to the compound. He was trying to produce a large amount of the gas for all the required chemical test as well as toxicological tests as properties of TFE itself was little known back then [2]. The gas was stored in many small cylinders with valve release and the cans are kept on dry ice for cooling and liquefaction. The experimental protocol required the TFF gas to be released in heated chamber, however, when they attempted to open the valve of the cylinders for the gas to flow out, nothing came out despite it is still full by its weight [2-4]. Plunket and his assistant were perplexed by this and they proceeded to investigate the phenomenon further by cutting the cylinder open. To their surprise, the gas inside had transformed into a white, waxy resin overnight [2-4]. That material is known as Teflon today and has completely revolutionized the field of plastic manufacturing forever.

Sometimes, some eureka moments are simply serendipities when you were looking at other problems. As in life, there are times you just get lucky at the unexpected surprise.