DuPont entered the plastics industry as an outlet for excess nitrocellulose and gradually expanded into a leading producer of diverse plastic products. Beginning in the 1870s, researchers discovered that nitrocellulose, when combined with certain solvents, yielded a solid solution that could be molded and hardened for commercial use. This plastic immediately found markets as a substitute for ivory and metal.
DuPont, a major producer of nitrocellulose for explosives manufacture, entered plastics production as a logical step toward diversification. In 1915 DuPont purchased the Arlington Company, a manufacturer of Pyralin®, a nitrocellulose pyroxylin plastic used in combs, collars, cuffs and automobile side curtains. Ten years later, DuPont’s acquisition of the Viscoloid Company brought more involvement in pyroxylin plastics, primarily in the toiletries industry.
During the 1930s, chemical researchers at DuPont improved existing plastics and invented new ones. In 1931, while investigating alternative uses for its high-pressure technology, chemists in the Ammonia Department discovered the methanol-based methyl methacrylate. Trademarked Lucite, this tough, clear polymer was among the first plastics derived from petroleum, not nitrocellulose. At about the same time, agreements with Union Carbide and the Shawinigan Corporation brought DuPont into production of Butacite®, a polyvinyl butyral plastic. Butacite would find a major market as an interlayer for automotive safety glass. By World War II, these petroleum-based products had replaced nitrocellulose in DuPont’s plastics industry.
When World War II brought an urgent need for new products, DuPont plastics proved up to the task. Lucite found extensive use as a glazing in bombers and fighter planes. DuPont’s Teflon® polytetrafluoroethylene, first discovered in 1938, was used in nose cones on artillery shell proximity fuses and also played a role in the Manhattan Project atomic tests due to its ability to withstand extremely corrosive environments. Wartime contracts assured DuPont and other plastics manufacturers of steady markets and fostered the rapid development of new plastics technology.
In the postwar period, DuPont avoided the highly competitive commodity plastics like polyethylene resins and instead focused on specialty plastics that could command premium prices. In 1949 DuPont president Crawford Greenewalt looked to speed plastics development by combining the Ammonia Department’s research expertise with the marketing skill of the Plastics Department to form the new Polychemicals Department. This proved an unqualified success as the department’s sales and earnings tripled in the 1950s due to the introduction of tougher, more versatile plastics like Delrin® acetyl resin, Elvax vinyl resin and Zytel® polyamide resin. Between the 1970s and 1990s, DuPont moved aggressively into new plastics markets. Today, DuPont plastics are being used in a wide array of applications including piping, beverage containers, countertops, automobile bumper systems, semiconductor processing and electrical insulation.