Polymer Chemistry

Polymers in and Around You

How was rayon discovered?

The first artificial silk was probably prepared by a Swiss chemist, Georges Audemars, in 1855. Audemars mixed the pulp of mulberry bark (chosen likely because silkworms eat mulberry leaves) and a rubber gum and used a needle to pull out long fibers of material. This was a rather labor-intensive and difficult process and could not be done in any economic way. Some accounts also claim that Audemars drew fibers of nitrocellulose (the product of mixing nitric acid with cellulose); in addition to being a delicate process, the resulting fibers of nitrocellulose were highly flammable.

Hilaire de Chardonnet, a French engineer, was another key player in the history of artificial silk. Working with Louis Pasteur in the 1870s, the legend claims that he spilled a bottle of nitrocellulose while working in a photography darkroom. The spilled solution was left to evaporate, and Chardonnet returned later to clean up his mess. Wiping up the residue, he noticed long, thin fibers had formed. Chardonnet received a patent on this material, but again the flammability kept it from achieving large market adoption.

The Viscose method mentioned earlier was finally worked out in 1894 by English chemists Charles Frederick Cross, Edward John Bevan, and Clayton Beadle. This method was a commercial success, and the fabric was manufactured first by Courtaulds Fibers in the United Kingdom and then Avtex Fibers in the United States.


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