Friday, July 13, 2007

Dr. Baekeland's Child Grows Up in Renton

I was listening to NPR, a/k/a National Proletariat Radio this afternoon and in a spectacular event of convergence, today happens to be the 100th anniversary of Leo Baekeland's application for what became U.S. Patent Number 942,699 which you can see here.
Dr. Baekeland synthesized what became known as Bakelite-the first synthetic plastic, which is still in use today because of its incredible strength, utility, and dielectric properties. Although celluloid came earlier, it was cellulose nitrate, derived from plant material, and it was a great propellant and firestarter but not much good for serious work. Dr. Baekeland changed all that. You can read about him here.
Bakelite was a resin produced from the reaction of certain components of coal tar and wood alcohol combined under heat and pressure. When molded with fillers such as wood flour, carbon black, or cotton fibers, it produced an incredibly strong and robust material that is always recognizable by a faint whiff of phenol. In fact, bakelite impregnated fabric were some of the first composites and I have worked with them plenty.
What's significant about the anniversary is that it came about exactly 100 years before the rollout of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the first large-ish commercial aircraft made out of what is, well, plastic-in this case CFRP.
What makes this anniversary so important is that the B787 is the first commercial aircraft that was designed from the beginning to utilize all the benefits that are gained when one takes advantage of the properties of the material itself in the design and fabrication process, rather than using it as a substitute for conventionally made parts-so called 'black aluminum'.
And that's what distinguishes, and will continue to distinguish the B787 from its pallid imitator from France which, as far as we know, may well be called the A350 12th Imamliner for obvious reasons.
Would Dr. Baekeland be proud of what his child grew up to be? I think so. Happy birthday, Bakelite.


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