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What is PTFE?

Karyn Maier
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is a synthetic material accidentally invented in the late 1930s while a chemist was endeavoring to develop a new type of perfluorethylene-based refrigerant. Rather than achieving a chlorofluorocarbon, the scientist was surprised to find that the perfluorethylene used in the process reacted with the iron content of its container and polymerized under pressure. Less than a decade later, this new material was being distributed on a commercial scale and was eventually patented under the name Teflon®. It would be another 20 years before this material would hit the frying pan and become known as the first non-stick coating for cookware, however. In fact, this material was used for a variety of other purposes at first.

During World War II, PTFE was used to prevent the escape of radioactive materials from the facility designated to produce the first atomic bomb in the U.S., an objective dubbed as the Manhattan Project. This facility represented an impressive piece of real estate with more 2,000,000 square feet (609,600 sq. meters) in which to house uranium hexafluoride. Not only is this substance highly toxic and corrosive in its own right, but it also forms a dangerous gas known as hydrogen fluoride in the presence of water or water vapor. For this reason, PTFE was used as a coating for pipefittings to make them leak proof.

The exceptional insulating properties of this material made its use in electronic components ideal. For one thing, it is non-conductive, making it resistant to high electric fields. It is also highly resistant to water, heat, and chemical corrosion. In fact, it continues to be used to produce laboratory equipment and accessories that come into contact with hydrofluoric acid, which would otherwise dissolve other materials, even glass.

PTFE also possesses very low frictional properties, which is expressed as frictional coefficient. This measurement is relative and differs according to the materials brought into contact to generate or simulate friction. In terms of plastics, friction is usually observed against polished steel. To put the low friction coefficient of PTFE into proper perspective, it is the only known synthetic surface material to which the toe pads of a gecko fail to stick. This quality makes it suitable for manufacturing parts that need to resist friction, such as gears and ball bearings.

This material was eventually introduced to American households by Marion Trozzolo, founder of Laboratory Plasticware Fabricators. While Trozzolo had been producing Teflon®-coated scientific tools for a number of years, he became inspired by a French engineer who found it such an effective non-stick coating for his fishing gear that he later treated his wife’s pots and pans with it. While this experiment led to the production of cookware known as Tefal (T-Fal®) in France in the mid-1950s, Trozzolo became the first U.S. producer of Teflon®-coated cookware. In fact, "The Happy Pan," launched in 1961, earned a place of historical significance in the Smithsonian Institute and Trozzolo a name of distinction in the Plastics Hall of Fame.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Karyn Maier
By Karyn Maier , Writer
Contributing articles to About Mechanics is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's Catskill Mountain region, Karyn is also a magazine writer, columnist, and author of four books. She specializes in topics related to green living and botanical medicine, drawing from her extensive knowledge to create informative and engaging content for readers.

Discussion Comments

By mykoz — On Apr 09, 2011

@JellyMonkey - Small amounts of Teflon are not going to harm you. Teflon can be harmful in vapor form which would not happen on a stove top. You can treat a pan with small scratches. I would say once the pan in no longer non-stick or large chunks are flaking off, toss it.

By jellyMonkey — On Apr 08, 2011

I've heard once your teflon pan starts to flake off, even just a little, that it's time to throw away the pan. Is this true?

By sixty5 — On Apr 07, 2011

I am thinking about using PTFE tape instead of the pipe dope for my kitchen plumbing -- it just seems the tape is easier to use as a do-it-yourselfer.

Has anybody used this before, can you give me any tips on how to use this, or even just tell me if it's better to use the tape or the pipe dope? I'm a bit new at the whole DIY thing, so I'd appreciate any advice you could give me.

Karyn Maier

Karyn Maier

Writer

Contributing articles to About Mechanics is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's...
Learn more
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