Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a polymer prepared from the vinyl chloride monomer. It is the third-most widely produced plastic, after polyethylene and polypropylene. PVC is a common material for building and packaging today, but it spent many years without practical applications: This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first patent for PVC.
Henri Victor Regnault and Eugen Baumann are both credited with the unintentional discovery of PVC in 1835 and 1872, respectively, but neither followed up on the discovery, probably owing to difficulties with handling the material. It was not until 1913 that the German chemist Friedrich Heinrich August Klatte received the first patent for PVC with his process for the polymerization of vinyl chloride using sunlight. Klatte later described the use of peroxides as catalysts for polymerizations: He would add small amounts of peroxide directly to the monomer. The liquid would gradually thicken until it became very viscous at which point Klatte would expose it to sunlight until it hardened completely. Once it had hardened, Klatte would smash the glass container, break the solid into smaller pieces, then dissolve these in a mixture of ketones and gasoline.
PVC remained a scientific curiosity for several years as PVC by itself is intractable and thermally unstable. Waldo Semon, B.F. Goodrich company, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA, discovered in the 1920s that the properties of PVC could be modified with the addition of plasticizers. Thus began its modern usage: PVC is always mixed with heat stabilizers, lubricants, plasticizers such as phthalic acid derivatives, fillers, and other additives to make processing possible.
Production reached 32.3 million tons in 2011 and is expected to exceed 49 million tons by 2020. Construction, packaging, and electrical applications account for 75 % of the PVC produced annually.
Friedrich Heinrich August Klatte is the answer to Guess the Chemist (20), which gave details about Klatte’s life.
- Poly(Vinyl Chloride),
M. Allsop, G. Vianello,
In Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry,
Vol. 28, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, Germany, 2006, pp. 441–468.
This and other scientific milestones can be found in:
- Meilensteine der Chemie 2013,
Horst Remane and Wolfgang Girnus,
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2013, 61(1), 11–22.