Roy J. Plunkett
Death of Roy J. Plunkett, who accidentally discovered Teflon in 1938 when he found that a tank of gaseous tetrafluoroethylene had polymerized to a white powder. During WWII this new polymer was applied as a corrosion-resistant coating to protect metal equipment.
From the 1930s to the present, beginning with neoprene and nylon, the American chemical industry has introduced a cornucopia of polymers to the consumer. Teflon, discovered by Roy J. Plunkett (1910–1994) at the DuPont Company’s Jackson Laboratory in 1938, was an accidental invention—unlike most of the other polymer products. But as Plunkett often told student audiences, his mind was prepared by education and training to recognize novelty.
Plunkett had produced 100 pounds of tetrafluoroethylene gas (TFE) and stored it in small cylinders at dry-ice temperatures preparatory to chlorinating it. When he and his helper prepared a cylinder for use, none of the gas came out—yet the cylinder weighed the same as before. They opened it and found a white powder, which Plunkett had the presence of mind to characterize for properties other than refrigeration potential. He found the substance to be heat resistant and chemically inert, and to have very low surface friction so that most other substances would not adhere to it. Plunkett realized that, against the predictions of polymer science of the day, TFE had polymerized to produce this substance—later named Teflon—with such potentially useful characteristics.
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation