04-27 – Wallace Carothers' Birthday Nylon

On this day in 1896, Wallace Carothers was born. Listed by C&EN magazine in their recent list of scientists who should have won a Nobel prize, we have Carothers to thank for nylon, which can be used in clothing, carpets, car parts and more. Here’s a quick look at the chemistry behind the discovery.

Wallace Carothers was initially an organic chemistry professor, but he made the move into industry after several years of university teaching and research. His brief at the chemical company DuPont was research into polymers (very long molecules, often based on carbon), and he made a number of advances in the area that place him firmly amongst the pioneers of this particular area of organic chemistry.

To start with, he and his research team invented a whole type of polymerisation reaction: condensation polymerisation. Polymers are formed from many smaller molecules referred to as monomers. Polymerisation is often explained with the analogy of a chain of paperclips – the individual paperclips represent the monomers, with the connected chain of a large number of paperclips representing the polymer. Condensation polymerisation took different monomers with reactive ends, and reacted them together, stringing them into the long polymer chain, and losing a small molecule (often water) in the process.

Before his creation of nylon, Carothers also had a hand in the creation of the synthetic rubber, neoprene, the discovery of which also originated in his laboratory. It’s nylon, however, for which he is best known. Nylon is a type of condensation polymer called a polyamide. Polyamides are created by reacting a type of monomer called a dicarboxylic acid together with another monomer called a diamine. The two monomers form an alternating chain, with water released as a side product of the reaction.

The type of nylon created in Carother’s lab was nylon 6,6, named after the length of the carbon chains in the two monomers. On commercialisation, this type of nylon quickly found use in women’s tights and stockings. Other types of nylon would later follow, with varying properties that made them suitable for a range of other uses.

Sadly, Carothers wouldn’t live to see the extent of his invention’s success, nor receive a Nobel prize for his efforts in polymer science. He had a history of depression, and just over two years after nylon was created in his lab, he took his own life, poisoning himself with cyanide in a Philadelphia hotel room.

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References & Further Reading