Roy Joseph Plunkett

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Roy Joseph Plunkett

Birthplace: New Carlisle, Clark County, Ohio, United States
Death: May 12, 1994 (83)
Ohio, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Joseph Henry Plunkett; Joesph Henry Plunkett; Bessie May Plunkett and Bessie May Plunkett
Brother of Marie Merle Deeter; Ruth Miriam Plunkett; Mary Jane Elizabeth Cassell and Richard Allen Plunkett

Managed by: Private User
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About Roy Joseph Plunkett

Roy J. Plunkett (June 26, 1910 – May 12, 1994) was the chemist who accidentally invented Teflon in 1938. He attended Newton High School.

Plunkett was born in New Carlisle, Ohio and attended Manchester College (BA chemistry 1932) and Ohio State University (Ph.D. chemistry 1936). In 1936 he was hired as a research chemist by E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company at their Jackson Laboratory in Deepwater, New Jersey. On April 6, 1938 Plunkett checked a lecture bottle container of tetrafluoroethylene, used in chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant production. He wanted to remove an amount for chlorination (using hydrochloric acid). The valve was apparently frozen shut and he could not get anything out. They were concerned that the gas might react internally in a very exothermic manner or even explode if anyone else tried to manipulate the valve. They decided they had to open the cylinder some other way to prevent a possible injury. They took it outside and built a shield behind which they cut the cylinder open. They were relieved and surprised when there was no rapid release of gas as they cut through the wall. Once then cut in two Plunkett discovered that a white powder had formed which did not adhere to the container. The tetrafluoroethylene in the container had polymerized into Polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon), a waxy solid with amazing properties such as resistance to corrosion, low surface friction, and high heat resistance. Plunkett related the story of this accidental discovery at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society national meeting in the History of Chemistry section, April 1986 in New York City.

He was the chief chemist involved in the production of the gasoline additive Tetra-ethyl lead at DuPont's Chambers Works from 1939 to 1952. After that he directed Freon production at DuPont before retiring in 1975. He was inducted to the Plastics Hall of Fame in 1973 and the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1985. Plunkett died on May 12, 1994 at the age of 83.

From the 1930s to the present, beginning with neoprene and nylon, the American chemical industry has introduced a cornucopia of polymers to the consumer. Teflon, discovered by Roy J. Plunkett (1910–1994) at the DuPont Company’s Jackson Laboratory in 1938, was an accidental invention—unlike most of the other polymer products. But as Plunkett often told student audiences, his mind was prepared by education and training to recognize novelty.

As a poor Ohio farm boy during the Depression, Plunkett attended Manchester College in Indiana. His roommate for a time at this small college was Paul Flory, who would win the 1974 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his contributions to the theory of polymers. Like Flory, Plunkett went on to The Ohio State University for a doctorate, and also like Flory he was hired by DuPont. Unlike Flory, Plunkett made his entire career at DuPont.

Plunkett’s first assignment at DuPont was researching new chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants—then seen as great advances over earlier refrigerants like sulfur dioxide and ammonia, which regularly poisoned food-industry workers and people in their homes. Plunkett had produced 100 pounds of tetrafluoroethylene gas (TFE) and stored it in small cylinders at dry-ice temperatures preparatory to chlorinating it. When he and his helper prepared a cylinder for use, none of the gas came out—yet the cylinder weighed the same as before. They opened it and found a white powder, which Plunkett had the presence of mind to characterize for properties other than refrigeration potential. He found the substance to be heat resistant and chemically inert, and to have very low surface friction so that most other substances would not adhere to it. Plunkett realized that, against the predictions of polymer science of the day, TFE had polymerized to produce this substance—later named Teflon—with such potentially useful characteristics. Chemists and engineers in the Central Research Department with special experience in polymer research and development investigated the substance further. Meanwhile, Plunkett was transferred to the tetraethyl lead division of DuPont, which produced the additive that for many years boosted gasoline octane levels.

At first it seemed that Teflon was so expensive to produce that it would never find a market. Its first use was fulfilling the requirements of the gaseous diffusion process of the Manhattan Project for materials that could resist corrosion by fluorine or its compounds (see Ralph Landau). Teflon pots and pans were invented years later. The awarding of Philadelphia’s Scott Medal in 1951 to Plunkett—the first of many honors for his discovery—provided the occasion for the introduction of Teflon bakeware to the public: each guest at the banquet went home with a Teflon-coated muffin tin.

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Roy Joseph Plunkett's Timeline

June 26, 1910
New Carlisle, Clark County, Ohio, United States
May 12, 1994
Age 83
Ohio, United States