A Brief History of Polystyrene

A Brief History of Polystyrene

You are probably well familiar with the many popular uses of polystyrene, a versatile plastic polymer widely used in packaging and insulation. But did you know polystyrene dates back as far as the 19th century?

In 1839, German apothecary Eduard Simon discovered polystyrene by isolating a substance from natural resin. At the time he had not been aware of the specific properties of this new substance.

It was almost a century later when German organic chemist, Hermann Staudinger, realised that the isolated chemical was, in fact, a plastic polymer made up of long chains of styrene molecules, that the polystyrene name was born.

Polystyrene is a high polymer type. Staudinger continued to publish his theories on polymers and natural rubbers in the 1920s, noting that the thermal processing of styrene generates materials very similar to rubber in their properties.

The revolutionary research focused on polymers, and particularly polystyrene, won Hermann Staudinger a Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The year was 1953 – meanwhile, since the 1930s, scientists of the time had already started to develop ways of manufacturing polystyrene for commercial use.

In particular, scientists at Badische Anilin & Soda-Fabrik (BASF), a company founded in 1861 and under the I. G. Farben trust, have successfully developed polystyrene. The company had a history in the production of synthetic coal tar dyes, ammonia, and nitrogenous fertilisers, as well as synthetic rubber and PVC.

Shortly afterwards Dow Chemical introduced polystyrene to the U.S. market in 1937. Styrofoam®, which is a Dow Chemical Co. trademarked form of polystyrene foam insulation and the most recognisable form of foam polystyrene packaging, was introduced years later in 1954. The material is, in fact, extruded polystyrene.

Polystyrene is an extremely versatile plastic which can be injected, extruded or blow moulded for the required application. Aside from foam polystyrene used in packaging, it is widely used for a range of applications as lightweight fillers and semi-rigid cushioning for consumer and electrical appliances.

In the building industry, expanded polystyrene (EPS) is ideal for cushioning and insulation.


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