London’s Science Museum looks back at 100 years of plastic innovation
By Kristin Schneidler
In 1907, Leo Hendrik Baekeland filed a patent for a thermosetting phenolic resin that was resistant to heat, flame, and acid, and electrically nonconductive—qualities he knew would be attractive to the production industries of the early 20th Century. True to his vision, the plastic, which he dubbed Bakelite, was adapted as an electrical insulator in automobile engines. But it was Bakelite’s design facility and affordability that made it a commercial success. Bakelite became prominent in the home, used to make serving trays, utensils, and small appliances such as toasters, coffeemakers, clocks, radios, and televisions. Depression Era spendthrifts indulged in Bakelite hair dryers, curling irons, and jewelry boxes. In May 2007, London’s Science Museum opened the Plasticity exhibit, which looks back at Bakelite and all of the plastics that followed, and introduces the newest developments in plastics and plastic technologies.
Though the Plasticity exhibit features a number of Bakelite pieces—even the famed Bakelite coffin, considered the largest Bakelite piece ever produced—the exhibit showcases other, more specialized plastics. Dr. Susan Mossman, head of content for the exhibit, says, “Scientists are manipulating polymers on a molecular basis to create some very exciting and functional materials. Because of the structure of plastics, these substances are becoming a material of choice for high-end applications.” Examples include semiconducting polymers that may form the next computer chips, solar cells, and liquid crystals, as well as a type of synthetic blood made from plastic, which can be carried as a light paste and dissolved in water for use as a blood supply in medical emergencies.
In the domestic environment, the two plastics with the biggest global markets, according to Mossman, are polypropylene and polyethylene—the plastics in food containers and grocery bags. Other day-to-day plastics on exhibit range from the ubiquitous polyester, used in clothing and furniture, to the cutting-edge N-halamine polystyrene, with biocidal properties ideal for water filtration systems.
Lastly, the exhibit devotes significant space to addressing environmental responsibility and developing sustainability. It’s unfortunate, according to Mossman, that “100 years of making and using plastics has not been without consequences, and we urgently need to address this.” Highlights in this section of the exhibit include ideas for a greener approach to plastics production and consumption, such as devising biodegradable plastics and new ideas for reuse and recycling. The exhibit poses the question of sustainability as a choice: Should technology be focused on developing degradable plastics, should the emphasis be on recycling existing plastics and making them easier to recycle? Expert opinions on both sides of the issue presented, and visitors are invited to share their thoughts, as they learn about petroleum-alternative plastics comprised in part from plant-based chemistry. One application, a Toyota concept car, is made in part from kenaf plant fibers.
Plasticity runs at the Science Museum in London through January 2009. To learn more, visit www.sciencemuseum.org.uk.
Kristin Schneidler is a freelance writer from Milwaukee, Wis.