The Greatest Inventor You Never Heard Of
Everybody has heard of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, James Watt and Steve Jobs, but who has ever heard of Leo Baekeland? Leo who? If you do a Google search for “greatest inventors” he doesn’t even come up on the list. And yet, every day you touch dozens (if not hundreds) of objects that exist only because Leo Baekeland figured out a way to make synthetic plastic from petroleum.
Have you ever heard of a man named Leo Baekeland? Unless you’re a chemistry professor the answer is probably no. And yet… his work is fully embedded in every aspect of your life. Baekeland is the father of the plastics industry. It’s impossible to say of all inventions, which one is the most important, but what Leo Baekeland created has to be right near the top.
In 1907 Baekeland combined two ordinary chemicals—phenol and formaldehyde—and mixed them in a sealed machine called an autoclave. Then he turned up the heat. The heat and pressure created the first synthetic plastic ever to be created entirely from chemicals. Those chemicals are found in coal, oil and natural gas.
What Baekeland created marked a significant dividing line in history. First, there was the Stone Age, the came the Iron, and Bronze Ages. Now with Baekeland’s lightweight formable plastic, the world entered the Polymer Age.
Today more than 60 million people are directly employed in the plastics industry and the countless number of products produced with plastic polymers is a cornerstone of the modern world.
So here’s a bit of irony. Leo Baekeland, one of humanity’s greatest inventors, is virtually unknown. And now, in a world completely dependent on Baekeland’s invention, few people understand where all the plastic we use comes from.
In the United States, the primary feedstock for plastics, fertilizers, adhesives, solvents and countless other products is natural gas. In Europe and Asia the same products are made with naphtha, a crude oil derivative. But in America, natural gas is the feedstock of choice because it’s significantly less expensive.
That wasn’t the case not so long ago. Natural gas supplies were shrinking and prices were high. Then, innovations in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling through tight shale formations launched what is now known as the shale revolution.
The boom in drilling expanded oil and gas production by 57% over the past decade. Industry analysts say natural gas byproducts nearly doubled from 2 million barrels a day in 2008 to 3.7 million barrels in 2016. With natural gas prices projected to be low for many years to come, the petrochemical industry is investing enormous amounts of money into new projects—totaling 185 billion dollars.
According to the American Chemistry Council 310 new plants will come online by 2025 adding $294 billion in economic output and 462,000 direct and indirect jobs. To put that in perspective, in 2016 alone, spending on chemical plants accounted for half of all investment in U.S. manufacturing.
So what exactly are all of those people doing who turn natural gas into one of the countless things you touch every day? Here’s the basic process: First, one element of natural gas called “ethane” is separated from the raw gas stream and fed into giant furnaces called “steam crackers,” which break apart the molecules. The ethane is broken down into a smaller molecule called ethylene. The ethylene is then used to make a plastic called polyethylene, which takes the form of plastic pellets. Those pellets are then shipped to manufacturers who heat them up and mold them into such things as plastic packaging, eyeglasses, phones, food containers and thousands of other products. This is the manufacturing process of the polymer age.
The scale of the natural-gas driven boom in the production of synthetic plastic and so many other products is too vast to comprehend. The only way we can even begin to imagine the enormity of it all is to look around. Everything you see and touch and so much of what you can’t see is there because a curious chemist thought it might be possible to create a synthetic polymer.
His name was Leo Baekeland, the greatest inventor you’re hearing about for the first time.
- The economic impact of the “shale revolution” has been—and still is—enormous for the American and world economies. The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Matthews gets into the weeds of industrial growth, job creation, the process of natural gas being turned into plastic and even includes some praise for Leo Baekeland, inventor of synthetic plastic.
- Energy in Depth provides a wealth of information on how shale gas is providing growth to the U.S. manufacturing sector.
- In 1993 The American Chemical Society produced a booklet highlighting the Belgian born chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland. In his Yonkers NY laboratory Baekeland changed the world.
- More on Leo Hendrik Baekeland
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