National Chemistry Week 2020 runs from October 18-24 and is all about adhesives.Today, adhesives come in both the natural and the synthetic variety and have a myriad of uses around the house and out in the wider world. The first known evidentiary use of a natural adhesive, according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, was tar made from birch bark that adhered stones to form an axe from the Middle Pleistocene era, or roughly 200,000 years ago. As human evolution progressed new natural adhesives were discovered, such as plant gum and tree resins. Another adhesive, employed by the ancient Egyptians, was made from a protein found in mammalian milk called casein. Casein-based adhesives have stood the test of time and are still in use today in the manufacturing industry.
General lore has it that the first commercial glue plant was founded in Holland in 1690, which made glue using animal hides. And though casein adhesives had been around for thousands of years, US183024A was the first process patent for the production of casein glue and was granted in 1876 to John and Charles Ross.
The modern era of synthetic adhesives really took off with the creation of Bakelite (or if you’re looking for a mouthful: polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride) in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, which was later patented in 1909. This synthetic was widely used in a variety of ways due to its nonconductive and heat-resistant properties, including in the electrical and automotive industries. Since the early 20th century, the synthetic adhesive industry has grown exponentially and these synthetics can be found in nearly every product on the market, from dental resins to components of the device you’re using to view this post. Fun fact: though the synthetic polyvinyl acetate (C4H6O2) may not ring any bells, it can be found in nearly every home and classroom in the United States as a component of Elmer’s Glue, whose original formula included casein!
Today the adhesive industry is a multi-billion dollar market, which amounted to USD 43.9 billion in 2019 with a 2026 projected value of USD 69.7 billion. The history of adhesives is exhaustive and can hardly be covered in one blog post, so if you’d like to take a deeper dive I recommend the following:
- The Chemistry and Technology of Gelatin and Glue
- The Story of an Ancient Art: From the Earliest Adhesives to Vegetable Glue
- Adhesives & Sealants
- Drop by Drop: The Loctite Story, 1953-1980
- Sweatt, H.B. The Properties of Animal Glue. Journal of Chemical Education 23, no. 4 (1946): 192-194.
More on National Chemistry Week can be found on the American Chemical Society’s website, including resources for adults, students, and young people.