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Fat Guy

The Talking Frog of Roy J. Plunkett

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SO THIS guy's walking down the street. He's passing a row of bushes -- what's that called? -- yeah, a hedge, and he hears this little teeny voice. So he checks it out, and there's this frog! And the frog says: "I'm not really a frog. I'm a rich, beautiful princess. C'mere and gimme a kiss. I'll switch back, we'll get married, and you can, uh, rule my kingdom. Yeah."

Guy looks around, grabs the frog, and stuffs her in his pocket protector. That frog was <i>wailin'.</i> "What the hell are you doin'? You could be rich! You could be powerful! Look at you -- ugh. This is your best -- maybe your only -- shot at a babe like me. And I'm yours -- all yours. KISS me!"

Guy pulls the frog outta his pocket and looks at her.

"Geez," he says. "I don't have time for a girlfriend. But a talking frog? <i>That's</i> cool."

<i>That man was an engineer.</i>

+ + +

In the Spring of 1938, at a DuPont laboratory in Deepwater, New Jersey, Roy J. Plunkett was investigating replacements for the ammonia and sulfur dioxide used in the refrigeration equipment of the day. Despite the fact that fluorine research was already considered a well-traveled road, one of the compounds under study was a synthesized substance based on fluorine -- tetrafluoroethylene (teh-tra-flor-oh-eth-a-leen), also known as Freon 1114. He and his crew had pressurized a cylinder with this exotic concoction in preparation for the day's experimentation. But when they went to release it, they observed . . . nothing.

Now, I don't know what you would have done at this point. Most likely, your experience with pressurized gases is not much greater than mine, which can be neatly summed up as: nearly equivalent to zero. But that "nearly" includes a handful of important items like automobile tires, spray paint, and deodorant. It also leaves the refrigerator door open just wide enough to pluck that shameful can of <a href="http://www.reddiwip.com/" target="blank">Reddi-wip</a> from the shelf. If you were to shake it as directed, then invert it and give the nozzle a tweak, you'd expect it to spew a dense froth of light cream. If it didn't, you'd simply conclude that it was probably empty.

When the cylinder of Freon 1114 refused to cooperate, the first instinct of the participants was -- well, it's easy to imagine: jiggling of the valve, scratching of the head, booted toe or ball-point pen gingerly applied to steel can. Resigned to disappointment, someone picks up the canister to get it out of the way. And notices that it's too heavy to be empty.

So if your Reddi-wip doesn't feel depleted yet refuses to spew, what do you do? You shrug, swear to thrash your own damn cream from now on, and throw the can out. There's not much else you're allowed to do. The can practically shouts at you: <i>Contents under pressure. Do not expose to temperatures above 120 degrees F. <b>Do not puncture or incinerate can.</b></i> A normal person comprehends this, and interprets it appropriately: No Screwing Around; This is Serious Shit. As in: Somebody Could Get Hurt.

But we are not dealing with normal people, we are dealing with engineers. So when it dawns on Roy J. Plunkett and his crew that something still inhabits the Can That Will Not Spew, they do not shrug and throw it out. In fact, it probably dawns on one of them that they just might have a talking frog on their hands. So instead of rolling the can out to the dumpster, instead of doing the sensible thing -- eschewing punctures and incineration -- with glee and anticipation unappreciated by the common man, they send somebody out to <i>get a saw</i>.

Their luck is better than yours would be if you took a <a href="http://www.asseenontv.com/prod-pages/ginsu.html" target="blank">Ginsu</a> knife to a can of <a href="http://www.krylon.com/product/op_consumer_product.asp" target="blank">Krylon</a>. The pressurized canister doesn't go ballistic, and it doesn't explode. Despite the mounting apprehension of Roy J. Plunkett, it doesn't even hiss. When they breach the can's steel jacket and the halves roll apart to reveal the contents, what they find inside does not appear to be a talking frog at all. It looks like a trove of delicately bleached and lightly pulverized earwax.

Who knows which one of them first touched the stuff, and who scooped a glob of it onto the bench to scrutinize? It was slightly greasy, but repelled oil -- oliophobic. It also repelled water -- hydrophobic. In fact, it repelled everything. It wouldn't melt unless it got really hot (620 degrees F/327 C), and even then it didn't get sticky and it didn't separate. It was unmoved by whatever they dripped, brushed or spilled on it, and it was slicker than Wayne Newton on a Saturday night. What Roy J. Plunkett had discovered, or possibly invented, was polytetrafluoroethylene (pahl-ee-teh-tra-flor-oh-eth-a-leen), or PTFE (pee-tee-eff-ee), the world's first thermoplastic, and one of the 20th century's true talking frogs. When DuPont turned it loose on the post-war world after a few secretive years dedicated to the allied command, they called it <a href="http://www.teflon.com/"target="blank">Teflon</a>. Today it's made by a number of companies that incorporate it in a wide range of products under a growing variety of names.

The revolution that started with that deceptively empty cylinder continues to this day. Overcoming initial manufacturing problems, DuPont eventually bred hybrids for differing environments. And though from an economic standpoint it's the tip of the Teflon iceberg, what most interests cooks about PTFE is, of course, cookware. Non-stick pots and pans have been around for 40 years now, on a track of continual improvement. But like any technology, PTFE sometimes appears to be magic, and anything with that kind of aura is a magnet for myths. If your notions of non-stick cookware still cling to the carcass of your mom's first Teflon pan, maybe it's a good time to do a reality check.

<b>Myth 1: Non-stick cookware can't stand high temperatures</b>

This depends on your definition of high temperature. It's true that non-stick cookware manufacturers recommend moderate heat. But read the little booklet that came with your Calphalon Hard-Anodized, Demeyere Apollo, or All-Clad Stainless -- you know, the one that tells you how to take proper care of your $140 pan -- the one you threw away? You'll see that they recommend the same temperature routines for their standard (i.e., not non-stick) lines. In fact, leaving <b>any</b> All-Clad pan on high heat for too long voids the warranty. PTFE withstands 500 degrees F (260 C) continuously, and won't substantially degrade until it hits 600 (315).

<b>Myth 2: Don't put non-stick cookware in the dishwasher</b>

Since the patent for PTFE expired a number of years ago, many fabricators have entered the market, and each one is likely to have a slightly different way of making and applying PTFE coatings. But according to DuPont, licensed manufacturers using the most recent technology -- techniques for improved PTFE-metal adhesion, textured and filled surfaces, and more durable formulations -- produce coatings that are unquestionably dishwasher safe. However, this doesn't mean you can put the pan in the dishwasher -- because PTFE is not all there is to the pan. Again, look at the care guidelines for your stainless steel, copper or aluminum (anodized or not). With few exceptions, you're not supposed to put that stuff in the dishwasher either. Don't blame PTFE for your daily appointment with the <a href="http://www.rollomatic.com/athome/products/pics/multipurpose.html" target="blank">Scrunge</a>. It's those other, supposedly more durable, materials that are responsible.

<b>Myth 3: PTFE particles will insinuate themselves into my omelet and poison me</b>

There's no denying that early coatings were flaky. Teflon used to peel out of pans in blisters and shavings the size of silver dollars. This simply does not happen with today's coatings. But whether this ever represented a substantial danger is another question.

Remember that the principal characteristic of PTFE is that it sticks to nothing. Fluorine atoms are eccentric. Once they combine with other atoms to form a molecule, they resist combining with other atoms -- they're not even particularly eager to combine with another instance of fluorine. So it's a miracle that polymerization -- the process that creates PTFE -- results in an exceptional bonding of carbon with fluorine. It's a marriage you couldn't split up if you dressed Heather Graham in the latest from Victoria's Secret, lashed her to a Tomahawk missile, and aimed it at the bedroom.

And while TFE, Plunkett's proto-frog and the monomer on which PTFE is built, is a known carcinogen, PTFE itself is almost completely inert. The human body does not produce an acid or enzyme that can crack the polymer, and PTFE is not interested in anything your digestive tract has to offer. It passes through the body intact, leaving nothing in its wake. After all, if it won't stick to eggs, what's the attraction of your lower intestine?

<b>Myth 4: PTFE fumes will kill your beloved pet birds</b>

Yes, they will. But so will lots of other fumes -- remember the cautionary canary in the coal mine. All plastics emit gases, especially in the period shortly after their creation. The ineluctable and ephemeral aroma of a new car is mainly due to plastic fumes trapped in the sealed container of the passenger compartment, and they would topple Tweety, too. So PTFE shares collective guilt, but blaming Roy J. Plunkett is disingenuous. Curse Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first man-made plastic (Parkesine) in 1862, for all the good it will do you. But the best thing to do is keep your bird out of the kitchen -- think about all the other plastics in there with the potential to fume -- and put the brakes on late-night joyrides in your new Mercedes.

It's hard to imagine what the culinary world would be like today without PTFE. It is used to make not only vessels for stove-top and oven, but utensils, fan housings, pan liners, aprons, pot holders, and even wallpaper. If you're the recipient of replacement body parts, there's a good possibility that a Teflon heart valve, arterial shunt, or artificial joint also hangs around your kitchen.

And that's just one part of your house. Many things that we take for granted -- including the computers and phone lines that allow you to read this -- would not be possible. All because Roy J. Plunkett -- horn-rims, pocket protector, and all -- couldn't resist the geeky allure of a talking frog.

<i>Dave Scantland, a/k/a Dave the Cook, is an Atlanta-based writer and graphic designer. Three or four careers ago, he was a naive garde-manger for Sonesta Hotels.</i>

<i>Photos by Delores Edwards and the author</i>


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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It's a marriage you couldn't split up if you dressed Heather Graham in the latest from Victoria's Secret, lashed her to a Tomahawk missile, and aimed it at the bedroom.

That's an interesting vision. Nice to see you back on TDG Dave. Great article.


Marlene

cookskorner

Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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Loved the article. In the course of my career I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Plunkett (He was retired from DuPont by then). Also Mr. Bill Gore (Goretex fame) and a couple of the other guys that worked in that lab where the PTFE was found. The sawing open of that cylinder is absolutely true. The stories they would tell about trying to deal with the new substance were sometimes hilarious. And a lot of that did occur during WWII in utmost secrecy.

I have to tell you that in the course of writing a really amusing article, you managed to get the science right. Please write more.


Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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Dave, that's great.


"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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I have to tell you that in the course of writing a really amusing article, you managed to get the science right. Please write more.

Archie:

You rock. What fifi said. Didn't know Teflon could be so fascinating.

Your best yet. Please....more!

Regards,

Lily


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Thanks, everyone.

The sawing open of that cylinder is absolutely true. The stories they would tell about trying to deal with the new substance were sometimes hilarious. And a lot of that did occur during WWII in utmost secrecy.

In doing research, I found a lot of "Right Stuff" sort of coolness in all of the accounts. I've worked with engineers for 15 years, and it just didn't ring true -- engineers would like to believe they're astronauts, and I suppose aerospace engineers may have some of that aspect in their demeanor, but most of them simply aren't interested in anything but what they think is cool. And when they think it, there's no stopping them.

I couldn't believe that nobody reacted as if they'd just discovered Flubber.

You, too, Lily. :wub:


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Yeah, well, my guy WAS an aerospace engineer. He wanted to be the first Jew on the moon. Didn't make it, for which I am eternally grateful. He kissed HIS frog. :laugh:

Jeez, you are a tough act to follow. Great, great writing. :biggrin::biggrin:

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Jeez, you are a tough act to follow. Great, great writing

Great , but not great great. Thats your uncle. :smile:

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Yeah, well, my guy WAS an aerospace engineer.  He wanted to be the first Jew on the moon.  Didn't make it, for which I am eternally grateful.  He kissed HIS frog.  :laugh:

Jeez, you are a tough act to follow.  Great, great writing.  :biggrin:  :biggrin:

Suzanne: Lady, you crack me up!

And have no fear....you have serious writing chops, Babe!

But you're right. A hard act to follow.


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Yeah, well, my guy WAS an aerospace engineer.  He wanted to be the first Jew on the moon.  Didn't make it, for which I am eternally grateful.  He kissed HIS frog.  :laugh:

Jeez, you are a tough act to follow.  Great, great writing.  :biggrin:  :biggrin:

Suzanne, next time you can follow mamster. :biggrin:

As for HWOE: I like engineers. I have engineers for neighbors. Some of my best friends are engineers. But let my daughter marry one? I don't think so.

"First Jew on the moon." Love it.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Awww.

I never learn anything from MY column. For that I have to read Dave's column.


Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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Ah, cute joke DtheC. As an engineer I appreciate the good ones. Here's my favorite:

The Architect, Artist and Engineer

An architect, an artist and an engineer were discussing whether it

was better to spend time with the wife or a mistress.

The architect said he enjoyed time with his wife, building a solid

foundation for an enduring relationship.

The artist said he enjoyed time with his mistress, because of the

passion and mystery he found there.

The engineer said, "I like both."

"Both?"

Engineer: "Yeah. If you have a wife and a mistress, they will each

assume you are spending time with the other woman, and you can go to

the lab and get some work done."

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Very interesting. So that story that we all owe non-stick pans to the space program is rubbish.

But, the pedant in me has to say that fluorine is highly reactive. It's a consequence of this reactivity that the carbon-fluorine bonds in PTFE are so strong and, hence, that the substance is so stable.

g.johnson (Chemistry A level, A1 and bar).

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Great article, Dave. Funny and educational - did you ever write for Schoolhouse Rock?

I'm wondering what the relationship is between Teflon and Silverstone? Are they the same thing under different brand names, or are they entirely different? If different, how are they different - is one more durable or more non-stick?

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Great article, Dave. Funny and educational - did you ever write for Schoolhouse Rock?

I'm wondering what the relationship is between Teflon and Silverstone? Are they the same thing under different brand names, or are they entirely different? If different, how are they different - is one more durable or more non-stick?

Thanks, NSM.

SilverStone is a DuPont brand that is being phased out in favor of Teflon Xtra. This is part of a broad markteing strategy that (I suppose) DuPont hopes will revitalize the Teflon brand name, since it still has value, cannot be copied by anybody else, and is diluted by ancillary names like SilverStone.

More information here and here and here

Note that there is an apparent difference of opinion about who owns the SilverStone trademark. The second link indicates that Progressive International (these guys make lots of kitchen utensils) will be working with DuPont to recycle SilverStone. The second link is a Meyer Corp. website. Meyer owns Anolon, Circulon, KitchenAid and Farberware. So I'm not sure what's going on here. It's possible that the brand has been sold to Meyer, and the DuPont site hasn't been updated to reflect this. An interesting connection is that Meyer is a DuPont licensee, at least through Anolon; I'm not absolutely sure about the other brands.

Lots of people make PTFE-coated stuff. Some of it is under license to DuPont, and some is not. It should be noted, however, that DuPont still holds the majority of patents related to the application and use of PTFE.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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*Genuflects in Dave the Cook's general direction*

Beautifully done, Dave! It takes real skill to make that kind of science readable. Not to mention: I really like the frog.

:cool:


Me, I vote for the joyride every time.

-- 2/19/2004

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But, the pedant in me has to say that fluorine is highly reactive. It's a consequence of this reactivity that the carbon-fluorine bonds in PTFE are so strong and, hence, that the substance is so stable.

g.johnson (Chemistry A level, A1 and bar).

Thanks, g.

My error, due to sloppy editing. It has been corrected.

D.Scantland (High School Chemistry, C-)


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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It's a marriage you couldn't split up if you dressed Heather Graham in the latest from Victoria's Secret, lashed her to a Tomahawk missile, and aimed it at the bedroom.

That's an interesting vision. Nice to see you back on TDG Dave. Great article.

I too was fascinated by this line.


Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Never heard that we got Teflon from the space program. Maybe you are thinking of Corning Ware.


Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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Never heard that we got Teflon from the space program. Maybe you are thinking of Corning Ware.

It's a very common story

Google teflon space program for more

Edit: fixed link, although I'm sure everyone wanted to read about my wife's PhD research


Edited by guajolote (log)

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Never heard that we got Teflon from the space program. Maybe you are thinking of Corning Ware.

Oooh. Maybe Dave's found his next topic.

But g. has a point. A lot of people do believe that Teflon is an aerospace derivative. I conducted a Dave the Cook Poll of eight or ten people around my office (for protocol details, see How to Test Brownies :biggrin:), and more than half answered with some variation of, "I dunno. NASA?" In fact, that's when I knew it was worth writing about.

Are you sure about that link, guajolote?


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Never heard that we got Teflon from the space program. Maybe you are thinking of Corning Ware.

It's a very common story

Google teflon space program for more

Looking for more information on the claim in that article that CAT scanners were a product of space technology I found this claim on a NASA site.

CAT Scanners and MRI technology (Computer-Aided Tomography and Magnetic Resonance Imaging) used in hospitals worldwide, came from technology developed to computer-enhance pictures of the moon for the Apollo program.

Having been a member of one of the groups that developed the first MRI scanners I can say with absolute certainty, that this is a complete lie.

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Edit of my post... Never heard of a CREDIBLE claim that Teflon was from the space program. They did devlop some ways to PROCESS Teflon into different products. I think laminating with other materials and coating of fabrics may be among those. Went to some NASA folks (I live just up the road) here to see about some quartz fiber fabric with Teflon coating for some dumb reason. Maybe some folks then make the assumption that it is a NASA spin-off. I just remeber seeing those white nose cones. I know some folks at Corning and they really did develop the high temperature material for the aerospace program but I think that may have been before NASA became the program it evolved into.

Dave... You would be a great one to write about the metallurgy and heat transfer characteristics of our pots. There is so much disinformation out there.


Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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