Nylon was patented on February 16, 1937 by Wallace Carothers. Almost exactly one year later, it hit the shelves in the form of toothbrush bristles. In the intervening years, it has been used for packaging food, building car engines, clothing, fishing line, 3D printing… it even went to the moon! But just what is this multipurpose material?
Buzz Aldrin and the Nylon flag that they brought to the moon on Apollo 11. Note the rigid support rod at the top to support the flag in the near vacuum conditions. Credit NASA.
This is a model of Nylon 6,6; the most common industrial form. Each molecule is relatively small and simple, but they bind together into long chains when the negative nitrogen bonds to the positively charged carbon at the base of another chain, similar to metallic links in a traditional chain. These long chains in chemistry are called polymers, and nylon is the name used for a large family of slight variations on this idea.
Caption: Models of Nylon 6,6 chaining together. Red is oxygen, blue is nitrogen, black is hydrogen, and the carbon chain backbone is white. This process happens through a chemical reaction called condensation polymerization, because a molecule of water is produced when the two connect.
One reason that nylon is so useful is that it is a thermoplastic. Around 500oF it begins to liquify. This allows it to be drawn out into long very thin strings. Nylon fabric is just like normal fabric, except that it is made of these tiny thermoplastic fibers. As a synthetic material, it doesn’t mold. It is also waterproof and quick drying, making it ideal for a lot of lightweight outdoor clothing. With all of the rain we are supposed to get this year, this is a good time for appreciating nylon!
This nylon molecule model is made out of…Nylon!