Ivory and Bakelite

Discuss the issues associated with shrinking world resources with regard to one identified natural product, identifying the replacement materials used and/or current research in place to find a replacement for the named material

Ivory is a variety of dentin, easily recognised as the material that makes up an elephants' tusks. It was highly prized for it beauty, durability, and suitability for carving. The teeth of the hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal, sperm whale, and some types of wild boar are also composed of ivory, however never found mcuh commercial value because of their small size.

Since ancient times, ivory has been considered an article of luxury, typically used for ornamentation and carvings. Usage in the 19th and the early part of the 20th century was for items such as billiard balls, piano keys and knife handles.

This was rapidly creating a severe ecological and environmental problem, and unless a replacement had been found, elephants would now be extinct. There was a great need for a synthetic material to replace elephant-tusk ivory. In 1907, the Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland developed a synthetic replacement, called Bakelite. This is made by another polymerization process, between phenol and formaldehyde heated together. The reactions are complex, but the final result is a hard "plastic" made of crosslinked polymer chains.

Simplified Bakelite Synthesis (for complete synthesis click here)

This was the first true synthetic material (there are no natural analogues). It was used for billiard balls, piano keys and knife handles from 1907, and rapidly replaced ivory. From 1920, it was used in a wide variety of products. Some examples here are from the Art Deco movement in the 1920's which made extensive use of this new material. This also opened up production of new products. It had the advertising slogan "The material of a thousand uses".