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If seeing is believing, what happens when the R&D you’re working on simply disappears? That’s what happened to American chemist Roy Plunkett at the DuPont Company’s Jackson Laboratory in Deepwater, New Jersey.

Back in 1938, Plunkett and his assistant Jack Rebok were researching new chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants – a marked advance on the toxic sulphur dioxide and ammonia of the day, but no friend to the earth’s ozone layer as we’ve since discovered.

Plunkett had produced 100 pounds of one such gas – tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) – which he was about to release into a reaction chamber. Opening the gas cylinder, Plunkett and Rebok waited, but nothing came. The weight of the cylinder showed there was something inside, but even removing the valve wouldn’t reveal it. Intrigued, Plunkett eventually resorted to tipping the cylinder upside down. Out came a white powder. Cutting the cylinder open, they discovered more of this strange waxy white stuff.

The TFE must have polymerized inside the cylinder surmised Plunkett, but into what? The new substance proved to be chemically inert, heat resistant and to have a very low surface friction (the third slipperiest substance known to man). Teflon, as it later came to be known, was born.

Useless as a refrigerant, it did have several industrial and military applications. Today, as well as providing the coating for non-stick pots and pans, Teflon is also used in everything from carpets (as a stain repellant) and automotive lubricant to light bulbs and windscreen wipers.

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