5 American Discoveries And Inventions Within The Chemical Industry


The United States is one of the biggest world powers and its investment in technological dev...

NES Fircroft

By NES Fircroft

The United States is one of the biggest world powers and its investment in technological development and science is astronomical. President Joe Biden recently proposed a 250 Billion USD investment in research, as part of a goal to create jobs, rebuild the country’s infrastructure post-pandemic, and drive innovation.

This recent investment is nothing new. America has a long history of innovation and many things that we now take for granted were discoveries made within the American chemical industry. So, what are the discoveries that have truly changed the way we go about our daily lives?

1. Aspartame (1965)

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener commonly used to substitute sugar in food and drinks. It’s about 200 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar) and is considered less calorific. It was first produced in 1965 and approved for use in the food industry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1981.

It was discovered by the chemist James M. Schlatter who was working for G.D. Searle & Company (now a wholly owned trademark of the pharmaceutical company Pfizer). Schlatter synthesized aspartame whilst researching an anti-ulcer drug candidate and discovered it tasted sweet when he licked his finger that had aspartame on it to lift a piece of paper.

Today, aspartame is in commercial use under the trade names Equal, NutraSweet, or Canderel. It can be found in some 6,000 consumer foods and drinks sold across the world, such as sugar-free drinks, cereals, instant coffee, shake mixes, and pharmaceutical drugs.

2. Bakelite, the world’s first synthetic plastic (1907)

Bakelite was invented by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland in New York in 1907. It was the first plastic to be made from synthetic components (phenol and formaldehyde). This was a significant invention as it has great heat-resistant and electrical nonconductivity properties which have applications in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings. It can also be used in all kinds of products from electrical appliances and children’s toys to jewellery and firearms.

The invention of Bakelite marks the start of the Polymer Age or the Age of Plastic. Whilst manufacturers were already modifying natural materials and polymers to form new materials in the 19th century, this invention marked the start of the creation of completely synthetic plastics.

Baekeland’s invention paved the way for the growth of a global plastic industry that now employs more than 60 million people.

3. Baking Powder (1869)

People have been eating bread for thousands of years. However, baking powder has been a game-changer for baked goods and a myriad of other favourite foods. Baking powder has made baking easier, faster, and more reliable for bakers since the mid-1800s.

In the 1830s, bakers started combining bicarbonate of soda and sour milk to their dough, which caused a carbon dioxide producing reaction. The carbon dioxide, which got trapped in the dough, made the bread nice and light. However, this method was unreliable because the acidity of the sour milk was unpredictable.

This led to the introduction in the 1840s of cream of tartar instead of sour milk, which solved the problem. The reaction between the cream of tartar and bicarbonate of soda would start as soon as they were combined in the wet dough or batter.

However, the supply of cream of tartar, which came from France and Italy, was erratic and dependent on the yearly grape harvest. This lead Eben Horsford, a German-educated Harvard chemist, to suggest replacing the cream of tartar with calcium acid phosphate, which would react the same but had a more stable supply.

Since the reaction started when water was introduced, Horsford decided to dry the two elements sufficiently and combine them, then adding corn starch to the mix to keep it dry and prevent a premature reaction, leading to the creation of baking powder as we know it today.

4. Columbia Dry Cell Battery (1896)

It’s hard to imagine a world without batteries. They power much of the world we live in, and constant discoveries are happening within the world of battery technology. One of the most significant developments in the field of battery technology was the introduction of the Columbia dry cell battery at the very end of the 19th century by the National Carbon Company (NCC), now known as Energizer.

E. M. Jewett, who was working for NNC in the mid-1890s, had taken an interest in dry cells and was conducting experiments in the lab when he had some spare time. He developed a paper-lined, 1.5-volt cylindrical dry cell, and manufacturing on a commercial scale started soon thereafter.

In 1896, the Columbia Dry Cell Battery was brought to market as the very first battery meant for widespread consumer use: the sealed, six-inch, 1.5-volt Columbia. It was the first battery to be durable, maintenance-free, non-breakable, non-spill and affordable.

NCC was the first company to effectively produce and distribute sealed dry cell batteries on a large scale, meaning batteries were no longer only an industrial product. They were now a consumer product too.

5. Scotch Transparent Tape (1930)

The inventor of Scotch Transparent Tape, Richard Drew, doesn’t have the type of background you’d expect from someone who created one of the most successful chemical products ever developed. He’d dropped out of engineering school and had very little background in chemistry.

At 23-years-old, he was working for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) as a research assistant, when his masking tape idea changed the company forever and paved the way for the creation of Scotch Transparent Tape.

In the 1920s, two-toned cars were in fashion. However, creating this look was a challenge for car manufacturers. To create this look, parts of the car had to be covered whilst the rest was painted. However, few manufacturers were able to do it properly. Most would stick old newspaper to the windows and parts of the car with surgical adhesive tape, homemade glue, or library pastes.

However, the homemade solutions were hard to remove once the glue had set, which ultimately spoilt the paint job. At the time, Drew was in charge of taking 3M’s waterproof sandpaper to different auto body shops for testing, during which he noticed many botched paint jobs. During one visit, hearing that another such incident had occurred, without prior knowledge or experience, he pledged that he would find a solution.

Over the next two years, he experimented with different chemicals and products until he developed a formula that contained cabinetmaker's glue and glycerine, which kept the glue sticky. Combined with treated crepe paper, Scotch Brand Masking Tape was created. It adhered strongly yet was easily stripped off without damaging the paint underneath.

Four years later in 1929, Drew was faced with another challenge. An insulation firm had contracted 3M to insulate railroad refrigerator cars. The insulated bats needed to be packaged and sealed with something moisture-resistant so they could be used in the refrigerated cars.

Drew was now technical director for 3M's Product Fabrication Laboratory. He set out to solve this challenge but was stumped, until a year later, when an employee presented a sample of cellophane, a DuPont invention, which he wanted to use to package 3M’s Masking Tape, to Drew.

Drew immediately saw potential in the cellophane. After a year of hard work and many failures, he and his team managed to produce a marketable product. They created a new, nearly colourless masking tape adhesive made from oils, resins, and rubber. This helped keep the cellophane transparent.

The first roll of cellophane tape was sent to a prospective client in 1930. It has been a success ever since, and transparent tape can now be found in most households and workplaces around the world.

NES Fircroft and the Chemical Industry

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