Ever marvel at how your phone case holds up after being repeatedly dropped on different surfaces? Or admire how your sports equipment can withstand all kinds of weather conditions? The strength built within many of our everyday products has to do with some pretty cool chemistry.
For over 60 years, the two primary uses for Bisphenol A, or BPA for short, have been to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. Both are high-performing materials that are used for many common consumer and industrial products including medical supplies, auto parts, building materials, and safety equipment. Polycarbonate plastic, in particular, is specifically used in these products because of its strong, durable, clear, shatter-resistant and lightweight attributes.
Despite its commonplace utility today, BPA’s path from its initial synthesis to a ubiquitous, life-improving material wasn’t quite straightforward. First discovered in 1891 by Russian chemist Aleksandr Diann, it wasn’t until decades later and in a completely different country that the possibility of BPA’s commercial properties came to light.
In 1934, German workers at Interessengemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG (German for “dye industry syndicate stock corporation”) experimented with combining BPA with various other chemicals, kicking off the development of epoxy resins (commonly used today for adhesive purposes), as well as further potential uses for BPA.
The next big chapter didn’t happen until 1957, when two different chemists decided to take these resins to the next level (and fun fact, their discoveries actually happened within one week of each other). Both chemists tried polymerizing BPA and ended up forming a gooey substance that hardened within a beaker. Once hardened, they were both unable to break or destroy the material, laying the groundwork for the multitude of uses of polycarbonate we see today.
Historically, this incredibly strong polycarbonate was put to work on fuse boxes, electronic connections and glazing windows. But once it was found to be strong enough to replace steel in some instances and clear enough to often replace glass, polycarbonate plastic soon became a critical component in a diverse range of products such as eyeglass lenses, football helmets, sunroofs, impact-resistant bumpers, game consoles, and many other products designed to help enhance everyday life.
Due to its unique strength and resiliency in harsh environments, polycarbonate can be used where other materials could fail, and has become a go-to compound for many intense jobs involving marine, underwater, and underground applications. Not to mention it’s up to six times lighter than actual steel, can easily be modified, and is cost-efficient.
With its great utility and ubiquity in everyday products, BPA, like other chemistries, has received scrutiny over the years. The reality is BPA is one of the most widely studied chemicals in modern science. Regulatory bodies in the U.S. and around the world have reviewed the data and determined BPA to be safe at the very low levels to which consumers are exposed.
So, the next time you drop your sunglasses or prep your snowboard for a ride, it’s safe to say that the strength of science behind BPA matches the strength of the product made with BPA.