The history of PVC
Man has worked hard from the earliest times to develop synthetic materials which would offer benefits not found in the natural products around him.
PVC is one of the oldest synthetic materials with the longest history in industrial production. Its early history is of multiple and accidental discovery in different places at different times as well as unsuccessful quests for commercial application.
Early researchers accidentally discovered PVC on at least two occasions in the 19th century. The first, in 1838, was by the French physicist and chemist Henri Victor Regnault and the second in 1872 by the German Eugen Baumann. On both occasions, the polymer appeared as a white solid inside flasks of the newly discovered vinyl chloride gas that had been left exposed to sunlight. The material was difficult to work with and no one mastered the challenge of commercial applications.
In 1913, German inventor Friedrich Heinrich August Klatte took out a patent on PVC. His method used polymerization of vinyl chloride with sunlight.
The most significant breakthrough occurred in the United States when the company BFGoodrich hired the industrial scientist Waldo Semon to develop a synthetic replacement for the increasingly costly natural rubber. His experiments again produced polyvinyl chloride. However, the material was threatened by the recession in the 1920s and it was under threat of abandonment that Semon conceived the idea of PVC as a water resistant coating for fabrics. Sales took off quickly with a rapidly expanding product range. Demand accelerated again during the Second World War, when PVC quickly replaced traditional material to insulate wiring on military ships.
During the 1950’s many more companies started to produce PVC and volumes increased dramatically around the world. Developers quickly found further, innovative uses through the decade and refined methods to enhance durability, opening the door to applications in the building trades. By the middle of the 20th century, five companies were producing PVC, and ground-breaking uses for PVC, or ‘vinyl’ as it is also known, continued to be found during the 1960s. A vinyl-based latex was used on inflatable structures and fabric coatings, and at the same time, methods for improving PVC’s durability were developed, allowing applications in the building industry.
PVC products rapidly became essential to the construction industry; the plastic’s resistance to light, chemicals and corrosion made it the best option for building applications. Improvement made to the materials’ resistance to extreme temperatures, allowed for PVC to be transporting water to thousands of homes and industries. By the 1980s, twenty companies were producing PVC. Today, PVC is the third largest-selling commodity plastic in the world after polyethylene and polypropylene. PVC’s low cost, excellent durability and processability, make it the material of choice for dozens of industries such as health care,IT, transport, textiles and construction.