Roy J. Plunkett (June 26, 1910 – May 12, 1994) was the chemist who accidentally invented polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), or Teflon by DuPont, in 1938.
Plunkett was born in New Carlisle, Ohio and attended Newton High School, Manchester College (BA chemistry 1932) and Ohio State University (Ph.D. chemistry 1936). In 1936 he was hired as a research chemist by E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company at their Jackson Laboratory in Deepwater, New Jersey. On April 6, 1938 Plunkett checked a lecture bottle container of tetrafluoroethylene, used in chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant production. He wanted to remove an amount for chlorination (using hydrochloric acid). The valve was apparently frozen shut and he could not get anything out. They were concerned that the gas might react internally in a very exothermic manner or even explode if anyone else tried to manipulate the valve. They decided they had to open the cylinder some other way to prevent a possible injury. They took it outside and built a shield behind which they cut the cylinder open. They were relieved and surprised when there was no rapid release of gas as they cut through the wall. Once then cut in two Plunkett discovered that a white powder had formed which did not adhere to the container. The tetrafluoroethylene in the container had polymerized into Polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon®), a waxy solid with amazing properties such as resistance to corrosion, low surface friction, and high heat resistance. Plunkett related the story of this accidental discovery at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society national meeting in the History of Chemistry section, April 1986 in New York City.
He was the chief chemist involved in the production of the gasoline additive Tetra-ethyl lead at DuPont's Chambers Works from 1939 to 1952. After that he directed Freon production at DuPont before retiring in 1975. He was inducted to the Plastics Hall of Fame in 1973 and the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1985. Plunkett died on May 12, 1994 at the age of 83.
Photograph Hand Oil Tinted by artist, Margaret A. Rogers.