Teflon: The biggest accidental invention of the 20th Century.
April 26, 2002 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Teflon: The biggest accidental invention of the 20th Century. I was wondering how if nothing sticks to Teflon, then how does it stick to the bottom of a frying pan? This search lead me to a really cool site, MIT's Inventor Archives. Organized alphabetically by inventors' last names and also by invention, it's a great jumping-off spot for research information and observing the interconnectivity that keeps research going.
posted by Mack Twain (11 comments total)
So did you find out how they make it stick? I didn't see it in the article. :)
posted by stormy at 7:58 AM on April 26, 2002

Today pot makers sandblast the inside of the pan to make it rough, then apply a primer. Teflon is embedded in the primer and is mechanically, not chemically, held on to the surface of the frying pan. Du Pont has invented a new primer to apply Teflon on a smooth surface, but aren’t explaining how it works. from this page.
posted by sailormouth at 8:04 AM on April 26, 2002

Making Teflon Stick (courtesy of the Wayback machine)

The article's title refers both to the technical challenge of bonding Teflon to other materials to make frying pans, etc., but also to the cultural and commercial forces behind it's emergence as a part of the mainstream psyche.

True nonstick polymer eliminates mechanical friction

Stretch a surface and spray it with Teflon. "When the tension is relieved, the substrate pulls the polymer molecules so close together that no other material is able to bond to the polymer molecules. Devices coated with the friction-free polymers can bang against each other without scratching and cannot become coated with anything — even liquids. ...The resulting surface not only had much greater density and 'smoothness,' but also proved to be more chemically inert than natural substances. Without any of the ordinary irregularities in its surface, even down to the atomic level, nothing could attach itself to the material, even water molecules or solvents for the coating material."

Did you catch that last bit? The post-stretch coating was impervious to the solvent normally used to remove the material in the coating. So far it has been unaffected by varying heat and humidity levels, including six months of submersion in water. Next are tests against industrial acids and other extreme conditions.

Does this count, Settle?
posted by NortonDC at 8:20 AM on April 26, 2002

I love the picture of the guy skating on Teflon.
posted by pracowity at 8:41 AM on April 26, 2002

I read somewhere (in a book) that there used to be a Teflon paint for use on boat hulls. It was withdrawn after some fellow died using it. He was smoking a cigarette and a drop of paint fell on the lit end. The paint, when burnt, released some sort of toxic gas, which he inhaled.

There's a book by Michael Slade where the baddy (it's a rather grotesque horror story) has a plan to kill everybody in the Albert Hall using Teflon off kitchenware and Thermite charges. Needed twelve saucepans to do the job.
posted by jackspot at 10:37 AM on April 26, 2002

Super heating teflon might make your victim think they've got the flu, or it might kill their parakeet, but it's a really tough way to kill somebody.
posted by NortonDC at 11:05 AM on April 26, 2002

I think the Teflon had to hit 4000 degrees C or there abouts.
posted by jackspot at 11:17 AM on April 26, 2002

Teflon has become a catch-all, like White-Out, but there are plenty other materials out there. I think most cookware manufacturers don't even use Teflon anymore because it's so easy to scratch. The parakeet bit depends on what specific non-stick material is being used. There's at least one I know of, from working for a cookware catalog, that will kill some species of birds if it is heated just to normal cooking temperatures. If you actually read the material that comes with your pots, you'll probably find a mention somewhere in there. If you're seriously concerned about it, contact a pet association, and they'll probably have a list of companies to avoid. We got some nasty e-mails from a few while I was working.

As for making it stick because it's so "slippery" and why stuff doesn't stick, we come to the same catch-all problem. The coating used by All-Clad(forget what they call it) is actually kind of rough if you run your finger over it. They use the same general procedure to put it on the metal, but what actually makes food not stick to it is the air that gets into the texture of the material. When the pan gets hot, the food essentially floats on the heated air, never actually touching the pan, kind of like on the Mr. Wizard show, where he heated up a pan, and then splashed some water on it and it skittered all over the place.
posted by Su at 2:01 PM on April 26, 2002

It only had a few years at the end of the century, but another "accidental invention" was the result of a Pfizer research effort looking for a heart/circulatory medication. It turned out to have an unusual side effect.

Viagra was born.
posted by fpatrick at 2:15 PM on April 26, 2002

Teflon heated to temperatures readily available on your stovetop will cause it to emit toxic gases: 400 degress C or so will result in fluorinated polymers and ultrafine particulate matter being released. The former are fat-soluble, accumulative, persistant toxins and are also ozone-destroying. The latter are relatively unstudied, but health effects are known to exist (think "miners' lung").

It's also worth noting that a lot of rain/windproof clothing has "teflon" in it (goretex), and that incinerating these articles is extremely unhealthy for the environment.

Some reference material is here.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:56 PM on April 26, 2002

Speaking of serendipity, there's the famous story of the Post-it Notes.
posted by alumshubby at 6:07 AM on April 27, 2002

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