Greetings, I would like to share some fascinating insights about Bakelite, the originator of modern plastics. This material served as a crucial precursor for contemporary plastics that we utilize daily, contributing to our lives today.
What is Bakelite Plastic?
Bakelite, a chemically resilient and non-melting plastic, was formed by blending phenol and formaldehyde, known as phenol-formaldehyde resin, obtained from coal tar and methanol, respectively, during that era.
Before delving deep into Bakelite plastic’s attributes, I would like to share how plastic has become integral to our lives, even when we don’t think about it that much.
From your toothbrush to the hairbrush, from the water bottle to the baby feeding bottle, the interior of your car to the interior of your office furniture, a component in your smartphone to a component in your laptop/computer, plastic is everywhere. They have influenced our lives in more ways than we can imagine.
However, it wasn’t always like that. Until 3-4 centuries ago, things were mostly made of metals like iron, steel, and aluminum. Before that, the situation was even weirder, everything was haywire, and things were made from bones, animal flesh, skin, ivory, wood, and plant fibers.
The History of Plastic and Bakelite
The earlier use of plastic was found in the 1700s(Closest estimations). Plastic substances like latex extracted from plants were being used for producing certain products.
After that, in the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution had just begun, and scientists and chemists started finding reliable alternatives.
Multiple variations to plastics were invented, like celluloid – from plant cellulose(still used) and Gallliath – made from milk protein and formaldehyde.
But then something happened that led me to write this piece :). In 1909 ( he got the U.S. patent for plastic this year), German chemist Leo Baekeland invented the first entirely synthetic plastic material (Bakelite).
Little did he know his invention was going to change the world.
In terms of properties, it was decades ahead of its predecessors.
Chemical and heat resistance with good electrical insulating properties are the main attributes that made Bakelite plastic a critical invention.
Those supremely ahead of their time features made Bakelite a much-needed force in the emerging automobile and electrical industries in the 1900s.
Bakelite plastic had all the modern features one would expect in a material found today; it was rugged, durable, and could be molded into various shapes.
Manufacturers soon realized the potential and used it to manufacture many products.
Customers flocked to buy products made from the newly invented plastic thanks to its aesthetics, sleekness, style, and premium feelings.
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Is Bakelite Still Used Today?
Back in the day, when it was newly invented, it hit the market like a dump truck, and general customers fell in love with the products made by Bakelite.
Contrary to popular notion, It is still utilized in certain parts of automobiles and space shuttles thanks to its electrically insulating properties. It is also still used in industrial applications like switches and electrical appliances.
Although the use is minimal, advanced plastics have made their way to the manufacturing workshops with much better properties for producing new complex products.
Almost everything sold from 1920 to the early 1950s was made from bakelite material – telephones, clocks, pens, jewelry boxes, kitchenware, radios, lamps, desk sets, chess boards, billiard balls, poker chips, etc.
Bakelite plastic started a new consumer era with attractive and affordable goods previously reserved for the elites.
It also made an irreplaceable mark in the fashion industry with affordable jewelry and clothes.
Bakelite-made jewelry was lightweight, affordable, and intricate in design, and it also introduced plastics to the fashion world – nylon, spandex, polyester, etc., following the created legacy. The earliest found plastic dentures were also made from bakelite.
Change of Fortunes for Bakelite
Bakelite was a thermoset which means it can only be heated once (for optimal use), which in turn gives it its most beneficial property, electrical insulation; however, things started to quickly change in the 1950s when several other plastics (Mostly thermoplastics) came to the market and edged out bakelite.
Thermoplastics can be heated multiple times without significantly degrading properties, making them extremely popular among manufacturers.
That means bakelite material became extinct (almost) because of the same thing that made it famous.
Let’s dive into the general properties of bakelite material:
|34.5 – 62.1
|2.76 – 4.83
|30.4 – 54.6
|1.5 – 2
|0.787 – 1.21
|8.3 – 14.9
|Maximum Service Temprature
|200 – 230
|0.14 – 0.15
|Thermal expansion coefficient
|120 – 125
|Glass Transition Temperature
|167 – 267
|Specific Heat Capacity
|1,470 – 1,530
|3.3×1018 – 3×1019
|4 – 6
|9.84 – 15.7
- Excellent resistance to several destructive solvents
- Easily processable
- Good heat resistant attributes
- Thanks to its low electric conductivity, it is resistant to electric current.
- Products with a high surface finish can be obtained.
Does Bakelite still contain asbestos?
Even today, bakelite products can still contain up to 5% asbestos. In addition, the particle variation usually found in bakelite is amosite (brown asbestos) which is extremely dangerous. Having said that, it is impossible to know which Bakelite products, or how many, contain asbestos.
How do you identify Bakelite?
There are many ways to identify bakelite. However, the two most popular methods techniques use smell and sound.
Rub the item you want to identify rigorously until the rubbed part becomes hot. Then before it cools, take a whiff. If it’s bakelite, you’ll smell a chemical odor similar to formaldehyde.
The second method involves the sound; when two pieces of bakelite are tapped, a “clunk” sound is created, which is very distinctive, different from the sound made by tapping other day-to-day products made from other plastics.
Is Bakelite worth anything now?
As it was the first plastic material invented with multiple applications, many bakelite accessories can be found in antique stores selling products originally worth pennies for hundreds of dollars.
What are the 7 types of plastic?
Below are the 7 types of plastics:
1) Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE)
2) High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
3) Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC – U)
4) Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
5) Polypropylene (PP)
6) Polystyrene or Styrofoam (PS)
7) OTHER. Can it be recycled?
What colour is Bakelite?
Bakelite is commonly found in colors such as different variations of yellow – dark yellow, butterscotch, and various shades of green.
How is Bakelite weight calculated?
Solid bakelite weighs around 1.25 grams per cubic centimetre or 1 250 kilograms per cubic meter, i.e. density of bakelite. If we talk about the imperial or US customary measurement systems, the density equals 78.035 pounds per cubic foot [lb/ft³].
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Bakelite plastic was a revolutionary invention that changed the manufacturing and design world.
Its ability to be molded into various shapes and resist heat and electricity made it famous for different applications, from household items to industrial machinery.
Although newer materials have largely replaced it, Bakelite remains a significant milestone in the history of plastics and a testament to the ingenuity of its creator, Leo Baekeland.
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