by Carol Westbrook
“Our house will never have that old people smell!” my husband said when he discovered Febreze. Yes, it's true! Using highly sophisticated chemistry (described below), Febreze truly eliminates odors, not just mask them with scent like air fresher. This was when I realized that the 1960's promise made by DuPont was being fulfilled, “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry!” I've put together seven of my favorite products that chemistry has improved, excluding the obvious true advances in medicine, electronics, energy and so on. Instead, I've highlighted products we probably did not even need, but now can't live without. Who made them, and how do they work?
1. Super Glue ©
Super Glue delivers what its name promises: it can stick almost anything together with a bond so strong that a 1-inch square can hold more than a ton. Besides household projects and repair, it's an effective skin adhesive for cuts, and those nasty dry-skin cracks you get on your hands in the winter. The myth is that Super Glue, or cyanoacrylate (C5H5NO2) was created as surgical adhesive for WWII field hospitals. In reality, it was invented by Goodrich in 1942 as a potential plastic for gunsights; it was rejected because its annoying property of sticking to everything made it impossible to fabricate. Fast forward to 1951, when it was rediscovered by scientists Harry Coover and Fred Joyner at Eastman Kodak, who recognized its potential as a glue. Initially it was used industrially, but in the 1970s it was introduced as a consumer project that rapidly took off.
Cyanoacrylate is a small molecule that binds to itself creating long chains, or polymers, when exposed to water–including water vapor in the air. The polymers are extremely strong acrylic plastics that rapidly bind whatever they contact when polymerizing. Unlike many adhesives, Super Glue cures almost instantly and can stick your fingers together before you can wipe it off. For obvious reasons it is packaged in small, one-use containers.
2. Post-It Notes ©
Post-It-Notes revolutionized the modern office, second only to personal computers. Offices are covered with these little papers, which have become ubiquitous in your home, too. The Windows computer operating system even has digital yellow “post-it” notes to “paste” on your screen.
The story of post-it's invention is a great example of collaboration between industry and the entrepreneur. In 1974, Art Fry, an employee at 3M (maker of Scotch tape), heard about his colleague, Dr. Spencer Silver's, 1968 invention of a low-tack, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive, which so far had no commercial application. Fry developed the idea, under 3M's officially sanctioned “permitted bootlegging policy.” He used yellow paper since that was the only scrap paper at the lab next door. After a mediocre launch in 1977, they were re-branded and released in 1979 as Post-It Notes.
These little colored papers use re-adherable, pressure-sensitive glue made with tiny and variably-sized microcapsules of adhesives, 10 to 100 times larger than the glue particles on conventional sticky tape. Each press released only enough adhesive force to hold the paper in the little note, but because of the large number of glue capsules they can be re-used many time before they give up the ghost. Similarly, the USPS also uses pressure-sensitive adhesives on lick-free stamps–another office-changing technology; USPS stamps are designed so they cannot be peeled and re-used, much to the dismay of stamp collectors who cannot easily remove them from envelopes.
3. Teflon Cookware
Like many game-changing inventions, Teflon was discovered by accident. Dr. Roy Plunkett, a research scientist at DuPont in New Jersey in 1938, was looking for non-toxic alternatives to refrigerants to replace the sulfur dioxide and ammonia then in use. One potential chemical, tetrafluorethylene, TFE was stored as a gas in a small cylinder, but when it was opened later the gas was gone, and instead the cylinder contained a waxy white powder. The TFE had polymerized to polytetrafluorethylene, PFTE.
Tests showed PFTE to be one of the most frictionless substances known to man. It was also non-corrosive, chemically stable, and melted only at very high temperatures. Unlike polymers such as Super Glue, FTE polymer has virtually no Van Der Waals (adhesive) forces, the molecular “pull” that makes things stick together. Three years later PFTE was patented by Du Pont as Teflon©, and sold for industrial use. In 1962 someone invented a method to make this non-sticky stuff adhere to a frying pan, creating a pan so slippery that you could fry an egg without using oil. And our way of cooking changed forever.
4. Febreze© odor remover
Febreze was introduced as a laundry cleaning aid by Proctor and Gamble in 1996. Its invention is attributed to Toan Trinh, a professor of chemistry at the University of Saigon, who was recruited by Procter & Gamble, and relocated to the US just one week before the fall of Saigon in 1975! Initially created as a laundry additive, its odor-removing property was quickly recognized. The active ingredient in Febreze is beta-cyclodextrin, a sugar molecule that is shaped like a donut, shown in the figure at the right. When you spray Febreze into the air or on a garment, the smelly molecules dissolve in the droplets and are quickly drawn into the”donut.” The smelly molecule is still present, but the donut-smell mix cannot bind to the receptors in your nose that recognize odors, so you can't smell it. The odiferous molecules are washed out with the laundry, or dry with the droplets, and the smell is gone forever.
5. DEET Mosquito repellant
DEET (N,N-diethyle-m-toluamide) was developed in 1944 by the US Dept. of Agriculture for the Army to use in jungle warfare after several disastrous experiences in WWII. DEET failed as a pesticide, but was noted to keep biting insects away. Used in wartime Vietnam and Southeast Asia, DEET entered civilian life in 1957.
DEET repels mosquitoes, flies, chiggers and ticks more effectively than natural products such as citronella. It was long thought to work by blocking the insect's receptors for a substance that is present in human sweat and breath, 1-octen-3-ol, which is a main attractant for these pesky bugs. Newer research, though, suggests that it may do more than distract mosquitoes, DEET actively drives them away. It is now indispensible for worry-free summers outdoors, keeping us free from Zika, Lyme Disease, West Nile Virus, and St. Louis Encephalitis in our own backyards.
6. Press-N-Seal© plastic wrap.
Plastic film for food storage has been around for a long time, but Press-N-Seal is a quantum improvement. Standard kitchen plastic wrap is made of low-density polyethylene. It is a barrier to water and air, but does not stick well to itself or to containers. Press-N-Seal, on the other hand, sticks to everything, including itself, making a watertight seal. I tried covering a glass of ice water with this miraculous film, and sure enough, it held the water even when turned upside down! The more you use it, the more uses you can think of–protecting you computer keyboard while cooking, covering your morning coffee mug when commuting, or wrapping your wet toothbrush for traveling. There are even online user groups that sing its praises!
Peter W Hamilton and Kenneth S McGuire, two scientists at Proctor and Gamble, invented and patented the underlying technology in 1996. The sticky properties of this thin plastic film are due to the fact that its surface is covered by sharp, raised packets that contain a pressure-sensitive adhesive, not unlike Post-It-Notes. The adhesive in Press-N-Seal, though, is edible, similar to chewing gum, which makes it safe for food storage.
7. Hazel Bishop's Lasting Lipstick
Women have painted their lips since the dawn of civilization, luring their hunter-gatherer husbands back home to the farm. Lipstick as we know it, in cylindrical containers, made its appearance in Europe in 1911, and the US in 1915. Made with natural dyes such as carmine red, in a base of beeswax and castor oil, the color didn't last, and it smeared off when kissing. Frequent trips to the powder room were necessary to re-apply it. Lipstick made to last longer would dry out and become irritating on the lips.
Hazel Bishop was an organic chemist who worked for Standard Oil developing wartime bomber fuels. In the evenings, in her own New York kitchen, she created the first long-lasting, no-smear lipstick by
incorporating lanolin into the base so the lips would not dry out. It was a big hit when introduced in 1949. “It stays on YOU… not on HIM” the ads promised. By the 1990s, cosmetic companies introduced 2-step, long-lasting lip color, requiring the application of a transparent acrylate polymer over the colored base, eventually incorporating the acrylate directly into a one-step product. This long-lasting technology is now used in in mascaras, concealers, foundations, eye shadows and even sunscreens, keeping you beautiful longer, in any weather.
The list is endless–these are only a few of my favorites. One common theme stands out, however. Almost all were the result of serious efforts by chemists to create a truly significant advance that failed… only to be given new life by another equally creative genius who recognized the potential to appeal to the average consumer, who is always looking for the next, better thing.