The chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland, born in 1863 in Belgium and died in 1944 in the United States, was the discoverer of a synthetic resin whose name pays tribute to him. His surname Baekeland derived from the English term bakelite: in our language, the concept arrived as Bakelite.
Bakelite is a synthetic plastic that Baekeland created in 1907, although there were some previous experiments done by the German Adolf von Baeyer. Two years after its discovery, Baekeland made it known on a formal level and later founded a company to commercially exploit Bakelite. Thanks to his creation, this scientist managed to become a millionaire.
According to DigoPaul, bakelite is a polymer: a macromolecule that is obtained from the bonding of other simpler molecules that are called monomers. This substance is considered the first plastic resin that is absolutely synthetic.
In more technical terms, we can say that bakelite is synthesized starting from molecules of formaldehyde and phenol, following a process that bears the same name as its creator, in a ratio of two to three: formaldehyde acts as a bridge between the molecules. of phenol, and loses oxygen due to the condensation that it undergoes successively.
Phenol, on the other hand, loses between two and three hydrogen atoms, in such a way that each molecule of formaldehyde establishes a connection with two of phenol, and each of the latter, with two or three of formaldehyde, opening the doors to the so-called crossovers. When phenol is present in excess, phenols can be obtained that connect only with two formaldehydes through the same condensation reaction.
Bakelite has several properties that make it a widely used resin in various fields of industry. This plastic can be said to be heat stable: it is insoluble (it cannot dissolve) and infusible (it cannot melt). While it is forming it is possible to mold it and then it solidifies. Bakelite clearly differs from thermoplastic polymers, which can be molded and melted more than once.
Bakelite resists the action of solvents and water. On the other hand, it is not a conductive material of electricity (that is why it is used to insulate the electrical terminals).
The handles and handles of kitchen utensils (such as pans and pots), the buttons of items exposed to heat, the spouts of wine casks (the leather containers used to store all kinds of liquids, especially alcoholic beverages) and phone cases are some of the parts that are often made from bakelite.
At first, its use was typical for the manufacture of radio and telephone housings (let’s not forget the great differences that these articles presented in the past, with robust and sober designs), and it was even applied in the structures of some carburettors.
The twentieth century is largely characterized by having led to a considerable number of advances in all fields of knowledge, and Bakelite is one of the inventions that has most transcended the passage of time. At present, although scientists use a slightly different formula than the original, this material has not stopped accompanying us for more than a hundred years, as the basis of the most used products of everyday life.
In recent times, many of the first products made with this plastic have become part of various private collections. Although the applications of Bakelite have changed slightly between the early 1900’s and today, its properties continue to be essential for the correct operation of certain installations and to guarantee maximum safety for its users.