Which Ultra-Slick Coating Was Discovered by Accident?
Although commonly misattributed—much like the Fisher Space Pen—as a product of NASA-funded research, Teflon (chemically known as Polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE for short) was discovered completely by accident in the early 20th century.
In 1938, Roy Plunkett was a chemist in the employ of DuPont whose experiments with CFC refrigerants took an unexpected and historically significant turn for the better. During an experiment in which Plunkett was attempting to create a new refrigerant gas, the pressurized chamber he was using had totally depressurized before the chamber returned to its original weight. Since Plunkett was using the weight of the chamber as a measure of the amount of gas used, he had to investigate what had thrown off his experiment.
He eventually resorted to sawing the chamber in half in an effort to gain access to the inside and see what had thrown off his measurements. The inside of the chamber was coated with a white, waxy, and extremely slippery substance. Further analysis revealed that the material was a polymerized perfluoroethylene—a combination of the tetrafluoroethylene gas used in the refrigerant experiment, the iron from the inside of the chamber (which acted as a catalyst), and the high pressure used during the experiment—which would become one of the best known chemical compounds of the 20th century.
DuPont applied for a patent in 1941 and registered the Teflon trademark in 1945. While Teflon enjoyed early success in industrial applications (such as coating valves and seals in the pipes used in the uranium enrichment process for the Manhattan Project), it didn’t become a household name until the 1960s. In 1954, a French engineer by the name of Marc Grégoire—at his wife’s urging—created the first Teflon-coated frying pans under the brand name Tefal. In 1961, Marion Trozzolo introduced the first U.S.-produced Teflon-coated frying pan, dubbed “The Happy Pan”.
From the 1960s forward, the substance began appearing all over the place and now, roughly 80 years after it was discovered, you can find Teflon (PTFE) in outdoor jackets, scientific equipment, and everything in between. The chemical has become so well known, in fact, that the word has come to mean, in the context of public figures, a sort of uncanny immunity to scandal. John Gotti, the notorious and very public mafia boss, for example, was often called The Teflon Don because of his ability to escape prosecution after three high-profile trials in the 1980s resulted in acquittals.
Image courtesy of Dupont.