Chemistry

Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene a Versatile Plastic



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What do cone shaped stadium roofs and hand held medical devices share in common?  Both of them may contain the plastic polymer ethylene terafluoroethylene (abbreviated “ETFE’).  

A “polymer “is defined as a large molecule composed of many small, repeating structural units. Today, plastics increasingly play a significant role in the construction industry. ETFE may illustrate how materials science increasingly figures into architectural designs.

The fascinating roots of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene

During the 1930s, researchers at the Dupont Chemical Company forever changed the landscape of domestic life in the United States when they developed an interesting new surface covering for frying pans using a polymer composed of carbon and fluorine atoms, called “polytetrafluoroethylene“ (popularly known as “Teflon”). This discovery transformed the modern kitchen: no more scraping heavily encrusted baked debris from the bottom of a skillet—the nonstick properties of the new coating aided tremendously in the cleaning process.

Teflon rapidly gained popularity. Soon, it became a widespread feature of many common baking items, from cupcake molds to brownie pans. Meanwhile, chemists in commercial labs continued working with several other synthetic plastics to devise new products for the consumer market.

When putting a human on the moon became a national goal, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (“NASA”), conducted a partnership with Dupont to manufacture a durable, heat resistant polymer of Teflon to provide electrical insulation around wires in spacecraft. 

Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene demonstrated a sufficient degree of stability to suit this purpose. Its roots traced back to the extensive research efforts surrounding the development of Teflon.   

The chemical properties of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene

Composed of polymers of Teflon and ethane, ETFE demonstrates many valuable chemical properties: it strongly resists corrosion, possesses high impact strength, and melts only when exposed to high temperatures. 

Additionally, the transparent polymer insulates well, resists ionic radiation, transmits light better than glass and remains comparatively lightweight.  It can support four hundred times its own weight, according to some sources.

A wide array of modern uses…

In this century, manufacturers produce ETFE in a variety of forms and shapes. For example, purchasers may buy the plastic as a film, a mesh or a rod.  The diversity reflects ethylene tetrafluoroethylene’s numerous commercial uses.  

In addition to forming electrical insulation, the polymer today also functions in a wide array of medical device applications. It often appears in internal coatings in processing and diagnostic equipment, for instance.

During the 1980s, some companies in northern Europe began using ETFE as a lighter, stronger alternative to glass. Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene lends itself to being shaped into “pillow-like” formations. This feature enables it to perform a variety of functions in a building. 

For this reason, many architects utilize ETFE in skylights and, increasingly, as a primary part of transparent roofs or geodesic domes- especially in settings which benefit from an open, bright internal environment. Both the plastic’s nonstick qualities and its durability render it an attractive material for these purposes.

Architectural uses of ETFE

Some health resorts in cold climates create a warmer, sunny atmosphere by allowing plentiful light into the interior of buildings through the use of ETFE as a construction material. The plastic polymer has also found widespread popularity in zoo and botanical exhibits.

Perhaps the most famous example of the use of ETFE in contemporary design occurred when this material was selected for use in two important public structures erected specifically for the 2008 Olympic Games held in Beijing, in the People's Republic of China. Both the new National Stadium and the Aquatic Center relied heavily on ethylene tetrafluoroethylene.

Conclusion

It seems likely that in the future, ETFE will continue to play a significant role in the future as a popular building component. Lightweight, durable and resistant to corrosion, this chemical polymer offers many advantages from a design standpoint.

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