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Silicones 11. Advances in Materials

ChemCases lets you learn chemistry and enjoy doing it by applying the same chemical principles that the inventors used develop the products you use. And you can join with other learners to debate the fundamental issues that confront these scientists as they make responsible decisions about what they do.

Heat and Chemical Resistant Silicone Rubber

If we look at magnet wire today, we find even Formvar® is no longer in wide use. We see the words nylon, polyester, polyamide, polyurethane, polyimide, polyamide-imide, Nomex® describing the wire enamels allowing service up to 220 degrees Celsius.

Wire enamel is a mundane product perhaps. Not a lot of glamour, not much media coverage of wire enamel. But try some of these. Nylon, polyurethane, polyester, polyimide, Nomex®. What you will access is the world of specialized products and uses arising from the materials revolution. The invention of the silicones in 1940, of nylon in 1935 and of the other new synthetics of the last 60 years has transformed the way our society operates. And without these materials we would have no Nike, Burton, Salomon, and many of the products and devices that make our life more exciting in the new century.

  • Consider the nylon parachute fabric developed during World War II. In this balloon, supported by the buoyancy of the warm air in the lightweight nylon canopy, I can float noiselessly over a Colorado valley
  • The climber wears specially designed shoes with synthetic soles. He depends, should he choose, on a braided nylon rope.
  • Inside and on its exterior, modern aircraft depend upon lightweight, strong materials for interior furnishings and for external structural members.

And we might evaluate how to choose materials to fill the product needs we define as we move forward beyond the year 2000.

Wallace Carothers, Inventor of Nylon

The invention of the first practical synthetic fiber, nylon, is a tale that exemplifies how scientists work. In the early 1930's at the DuPont Company a young, brooding chemist by the name of Wallace Carothers believed he could prove that natural materials: silk, rubber, wood, were composed of long chains of molecules.

He believed he could do so by actually making long chains by an unambguous and undisputed methods. If the products he made had the properties of the natural materials, then he could be certain the structures he proposed were correct. Carothers produced a synthetic rubber, now called neoprene and a synthetic fiber, nylon. Carothers' human story ends bleakly. The quiet, sensitive man, wracked with consuming depression, drinking heavily, could not focus on the value of his science or his life. Two days after his 41st birthday he ended that life by swallowing cyanide.

Since I was a young man, working in the laboratory where Carothers made his inventions, his story intrigued me. I did the research to learn all that I could about this tragic man and published his biography, Enough for One Lifetime, in 1996. You can read a bit more about Carothersin Chemistry and Industry.