A History of Polystyrene and Styrofoam

This popular packing material can be injected, extruded or blow molded

A pile of packing nuts, manufactured from polystyrene
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Polystyrene is a strong plastic created from ethylene and benzene. It can be injected, extruded or blow-molded. This makes it a very useful and versatile manufacturing material. 

Most of us recognize polystyrene in the form of styrofoam used for beverage cups and packaging peanuts. However, polystyrene is also used as a building material, with electrical appliances (light switches and plates) and in other household items.

Eduard Simon & Hermann Staudinger Polymer Research

Dr. Hermann Staudinger founder of polymer chemistry
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German apothecary Eduard Simon discovered polystyrene in 1839 when he isolated the substance from natural resin. However, he did not know what he had discovered. It took another organic chemist named Hermann Staudinger to realize that Simon's discovery, comprised of long chains of styrene molecules, was a plastic polymer.

In 1922, Staudinger published his theories on polymers. They stated that natural rubbers were made up of long repetitive chains of monomers that gave rubber its elasticity. He went on to write that the materials manufactured by the thermal processing of styrene were similar to rubber. They were the high polymers, including polystyrene. In 1953, Staudinger won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his research.

BASF Commercial Use of Polystyrene

Badische Anilin & Soda-Fabrik or BASF was founded in 1861. BASF has a long history of being innovative due to having invented synthetic coal tar dyes, ammonia, nitrogenous fertilizers as well as developing polystyrene, PVC, magnetic tape and synthetic rubber.

In 1930, the scientists at BASF developed a way to commercially manufacture polystyrene. A company called I.G. Farben is often listed as the developer of polystyrene because BASF was under trust to I G. Farben in 1930. In 1937, the Dow Chemical Company introduced polystyrene products to the U.S. market.

What we commonly call styrofoam, is actually the most recognizable form of foam polystyrene packaging. Styrofoam is the trademark of the Dow Chemical Company while the technical name of the product is foamed polystyrene.

Ray McIntire: Styrofoam Inventor

Dow Chemical Company scientist Ray McIntire invented foamed polystyrene aka Styrofoam. McIntire said his invention of foamed polystyrene was purely accidental. His invention came about as he was trying to find a flexible electrical insulator around the time of World War II.

Polystyrene, which already had been invented, was a good insulator but too brittle. McIntire tried to make a new rubber-like polymer by combining styrene with a volatile liquid called isobutylene under pressure. The result was a foam polystyrene with bubbles and was 30 times lighter than regular polystyrene. The Dow Chemical Company introduced Styrofoam products to the United States in 1954.

How Foamed Polystyrene/Styrofoam Products Are Made

  • Foamed polystyrene starts as small spherical beads that contain an expanding agent called hydrocarbon.
  • The polystyrene beads are heated with steam. As the expanding agent boils, the beads soften and expand up to forty times their original size.
  • The expanded beads are left to cool down before being heated again. However, this time the beads are expanded within a mold.
  • The molds are designed in a variety of shapes depending on the desired end product. Examples are things such as styrofoam cups, cartons, wig stands and more.
  • The beads completely fill the mold and also fuse together.
  • Styrofoam is about 98% percent air.
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Bellis, Mary. "A History of Polystyrene and Styrofoam." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/invention-of-polystyrene-and-styrofoam-1992332. Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 28). A History of Polystyrene and Styrofoam. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/invention-of-polystyrene-and-styrofoam-1992332 Bellis, Mary. "A History of Polystyrene and Styrofoam." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/invention-of-polystyrene-and-styrofoam-1992332 (accessed April 15, 2021).