Good ol’ polytetrafluoroethylene. It’s just the best, amirite? All right, good talk. See ya next time…
…Wait, hold on. Yeah, so polytetrafluoroethylene, a synthetic fluoropolymer of tetrafluoroethylene (don’t even get me started on that $#!t) is better known as PTFE, and even better known as Teflon®. But, because Teflon® is a registered trademark of DuPont Co. (hence the ®), and, like Band-Aids, pretty much became the everyday name for what it is, and because we hate when that kind of bulljazz happens (lookin’ at you, too, Jell-O), we’ll just keep on referring to it as PTFE.
Yeah, You Know Me
You know PTFE quite well, even if you’re unaware of it. It’s main application is as the non-stick coating on cooking pans and the like. Because it’s so slippery, it’s also used as a coating on catheters. Hopefully you’ve only experienced it when cooking and not whilst in the hospital.
Legend has it that PTFE was invented by accident. Back in 1938 CE, Roy “Big Roy” Plunkett was working at a DuPont lab in New Joisey, Whilst attempting to create a new type of refrigerant, his pressurized bottle of tetrafluoroethylene gas malfunctioned and stopped flowing before it was empty. Curious as to the cause of the failure, Plunkett eventually cut the tank in half and discovered that its interior was coated with a waxy, whitish, extremely slippery substance. A high pressure chemical reaction had caused the gas to react with iron from the inside of the bottle, creating polymerized perfluoroethylene.
After further R&D, the resulting PTFE material was patented in 1941; the name “Teflon®” was trademarked in 1945. By 1948, as part of a joint venture with General Motors, DuPont was cranking out more than two million pounds of their patented PTFE substance. One of its earliest uses was coating pipe valves and seals that held the uranium hexafluoride used in the Manhattan Project. The first PTFE-coated cooking pan, “The Happy Pan,” was first sold commercially in 1961.
PTFE is still most commonly used on cookware; however, it has found countless other uses since its debut. It is used to waterproof material for camping equipment like tents and rain jackets, and is often used as a spray-on stain repellent for high end fabrics.
Powdered PTFE is used in infrared decoy flares and rocket fuel igniters. In its solid form, the material can be used to make a wide range of products and parts. Though difficult, PTFE machining can produce strong but lightweight parts in almost any shape, form, or size.
Perhaps the best use PTFE was ever put to was as the inflatable roof of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But that’s a technological tale of terror for another time, Timothy.