It's no exaggeration to say that synthetic fibers have not only revolutionized the textile industry but also changed the world. This video segment ...
A Science Odyssey: "Bigger, Better, Faster"
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© 1998 WGBH Educational Foundation. All Rights Reserved.
Adapted from A Science Odyssey: "Bigger, Better, Faster". Photographs courtesy of the Hagley Museum.
Today it's difficult to find clothing that doesn't have at least some quantity of synthetic fiber woven into it. Nylon, polyester, acrylic, and polypropylene can all be manufactured as fibers and all are widely used in textiles. But of course this wasn't always the case.
For thousands of years, the only fibers available were those found in the natural world: cotton, wool, linen, and silk. All of these fibers had their drawbacks and as early as the mid-1600s attempts were made to create an artificial fiber. Then, in 1889, a French chemist began the first commercial production of "artificial silk," what would come to be known as rayon. But even rayon used cellulose, a naturally occurring molecule found in plants, as its main ingredient.
It wasn't until 1934 that the first truly synthetic fiber was created by American chemist Wallace Carothers, while he was working at the DuPont chemical company. In his continuing efforts to create a synthetic silk, Carothers combined several carbon-based chemicals to create long molecules of an entirely new substance. A year later this substance would be patented as "Nylon" and the world would be changed forever.
There are dozens of synthetic chemicals similar to nylon in use today. These molecules -- collectively called polymers -- are, by definition, long chains of small, simple repeating units, called monomers. A single polymer may be made up of as many as 200,000 monomers. By altering the chemical structure of a polymer only slightly -- by changing the composition or arrangement of monomers in the chain, for example -- chemists can create new polymers with dramatically different sets of properties.