In our modern world, the average person interacts with plastic materials countless times daily. These materials include any products that are created with organic solids, including both synthetic and semi-synthetic. Humans have developed plastic products over centuries, and they are now used in everything from shopping bags to thermoplastic compounding.
The origins of these products can be traced back to 1600 BC, when Mesoamericans crafted tools and trade objects using natural rubber. These early materials were manufactured from animal proteins. This development marked the original use of organic polymers in such a practical capacity, and this technique ultimately led to the invention of thermoplastic compounding. The first major step forward came in the 19th century with the discovery of vulcanization. American engineer Charles Goodyear patented his process for vulcanizing rubber with the United States Patent Office on June 15, 1844. Mr. Goodyear’s discovery occurred amidst the rise of industrial chemistry during the 1800s, and helped to set the stage for more advanced developments in manufacturing throughout the 20th century.
In 1856, English metallurgist and inventor Alexander Parkes patented the first man-made plastic. As the scientist widely-credited for being the product’s true inventor, Parkes creation, dubbed Parkesine, was awarded a bronze medal at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. All modern plastic-based products can be traced back to this historic moment for modern science, even advanced processes such as thermoplastic compounding.
After World War I, progress in chemical technology research led to a spike in the creation of new plastic types. Examples of forms introduced around this time include polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene terephthalate, and more. Researchers and corporations such as Dow Chemical and DuPont spearheaded this explosion of invention. As a leader in chemical distribution, DuPont helped encourage the adoption of plastics as an acceptable replacement for glass. This eventually resulted in the widespread use of bottles throughout Europe and the United States.
The rise of plastic manufacturing is best understood when broken down into three distinct movements. Initially, chemists manufactured products exclusively from natural materials. The next phase of innovation resulted in the proliferation of chemically modified natural materials to create things like rubber and collagen. Today, engineers are creating epoxy, polyvinyl chloride, and other materials with completely synthetic molecules. Developments in manufacturing processes have led to widespread implementation of these products in commercial businesses. Thermoplastic compounding is one process that corporations use to produce a variety of commercial-grade products, such as PVC alloys.
Although we come into contact with all types of plastic items on a daily basis, it can be easy to remain unaware of the long history behind such an important piece of technology. Understanding how these products serve both consumer and commercial needs is essential to gaining a perspective on how engineers and chemical researchers are constantly inventing and changing the way we interact with the world around us.