The History of Thermosets

Stop and take a look around you. Whether you are inside, outside, or even in your vehicle, chances are you see something that is made out of plastic. Today, more and more manufacturers are substituting metals for plastics, as the properties of plastic make it a durable, flexible and cost-effective material. So how did we get to this point?

Before we get to the history of thermosets, let’s dive into exactly what thermosets are. Thermosets are ideal for high-heat applications like appliances. They contain polymers that join together during the curing process, which creates a secure, irreversible bond. This is key, as it rules out the risk of the product melting when heat is applied. Although similar sounding, there are significant differences between thermoplastics and thermoset plastics. Thermoplastics soften when heated, and the curing process is 100% reversible. This permits thermoplastics to be remolded without affecting the physical properties of the material.

Now that we have defined just what we mean by thermosets, let’s explore their history:

Early 1900s

The first thermoset, trademarked “Bakelite”, was invented in 1909 by Leo Hendrik Baekeland. Its ability to hold its shape under high heat made it extremely popular as a material for handles on cookware, electrical equipment, and was even used widely for weapon manufacturing later on in WWII.

1866 – Celluloid, the first commercially available synthetic material, was invented by John Wesley Hyatt. Hyatt created Celluloid to replace ivory for use in billiard balls. This sparked the development of new plastics.

1908 – Jacques E. Brandenberger invents Cellophane.

1909 – Leo Hendrik Baekeland invents the first true thermoset—phenol-formaldehyde—trade named Bakelite.

1926 – Walter Semon invents a plasticized PVC.

1933 – Ralph Wiley, a chemical lab worker for Dow, accidentally discovers polyvinylidene. Also known as PVDC.

1935 – Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett invent LDPE, a low-density polyethylene.

1937 – Otto Bayer discovers and patents the chemistry of polyurethanes.

1938 – Roy Plunkett invents polytetrafluoroethylene, which is trade named Teflon.

1939 – Wallace Hume Carothers discovers neoprene and nylon, considered replacements for synthetic rubber and silk.

1940 – 1960

A number of new thermosets and thermoplastics alike were invented between 1940 and 1960. At this point, thermosets still comfortably dominated the market of high-strength and high-heat applications, while thermoplastics were used in low-strength and disposable applications.

1941 – John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson invent polyethylene terephthalate.

1942 – Whinfield and Dickson patent unsaturated polyester.

1951 – Paul Hogan and Robert Banks invent a high density polyethylene, trade named Marlex. They also invent polypropylene, better known as PP.

1953 – Dow Chemicals introduce saran wrap.

1954 – Ray McIntire invents Styrofoam, a foamed polystyrene, for Dow Chemicals.

1960 – 1990

New thermoplastic polymers came into play in the 1960s, offering comparable high-temperature performance to thermosets. These new capabilities put pressure on the thermoset market to offer new innovations and benefits.

1964 – Polyimide is introduced.

1970 – Thermoplastic polyester is introduced and trademarked under Dacron, Mylar, Melinex, Teijin and Tetoron.

1973 – Osborne Industries, Inc. is founded.

1976 – Osborne Industries develops the closed thermoset molding process later to become known as Resin Transfer Molding.

1978 – Linear low density polyethylene is introduced.

1985 – Liquid crystal polymers are introduced.

1990 – Present

1993 – Osborne Industries launches the development of a new low-cost method of Reaction Injection Molding.

2001 – Osborne Industries becomes a 100% employee-owned company.

In the modern day, pricing and efficiency have become paramount as engineers decide what to specify in their products. Despite new developments in thermoplastic polymers, there are still many uses of thermoset plastics that have cemented their position in the industry.

At Osborne Industries, we continue to innovate and offer affordable thermoset solutions for a wide range of applications. If you’re wondering whether or not thermosets can work for your next project, contact one of our experts today!

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