A Brief History
On February 16, 1937, Wallace Carothers, chemist for DuPont, patented the synthetic polymer based plastic known to us as Nylon. Used as a fiber in clothing, tents, parachutes, stockings and every conceivable application, it is also used as a solid plastic as in bristles for toothbrushes (the original product), hairbrushes, car parts, household items, musical instrument strings, bullet jackets, flak jacket armor cloth, small and large gears, tire cord, Velcro tape, carpet, rope, gun stocks, fishing line and on ad infinitum! Nylon fiber is also often used to reinforce natural fibers in cloth.
Ranking with polyester (polyester #1 as a clothing fiber) as the most common synthetic cloth, Nylon came about just in time for massive demand during World War II as silk became scarce, especially for parachutes. Nylon outshines even polyester with its ability to be used for such extensive and diverse applications.
Nylon was not the first synthetic fiber, as Rayon made from cellulose had made its appearance in the late 19th Century. Cellulose acetate came about even earlier, around 1865, and is used as a clear film, eyeglass frames, and fibrous matter as in cigarette filters. Rayon and acetate were made from wood, but Nylon is generally made from coal or oil. Since Nylon is actually a family of similar synthetic plastics it can also be made from diverse materials such as Castor Oil or wood as well.
Nylon is what is called a thermoplastic, in that it melts at high heat and then rehardens. It also is quite flammable, and is not the sort of thing you want to be wearing if you are in a fire! Melting Nylon on skin = Bad!
Nylon’s environmental impact is complicated to compute. Its manufacture produces about the same carbon footprint as producing Wool from sheep, but since Nylon lasts longer it can be claimed to have a gentler environmental impact. Nylon does break down, especially in bright sunshine and in the presence of acids or very hot water, but at a slower rate than natural fibers and materials, meaning Nylon waste and litter are quite persistent in the environment, taking many decades to decompose. This waste creates hazards to fish and other animals, and takes up excessive space in landfills. Burning Nylon to dispose of it and recover energy used in manufacturing the stuff produces toxic fumes, making incineration non-desirable. On the other hand, Nylon is recyclable and can be gathered and reused.
Nylon has an incredible amount of uses and makes life better for so many of us in so many ways. Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite use of Nylon? Do you have a favorite synthetic fiber? Are you one of those people who demand natural fiber clothes, bedding, and the like? Please share your opinions with your fellow readers in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Hermes, Matthew E. Enough for One Lifetime: Wallace Carothers, Inventor of Nylon (History of Modern Chemical Sciences). Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2005.