Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is a synthetic fluoropolymer of tetrafluoroethylene that has numerous applications. The commonly known brand name of PTFE-based compositions is Teflon by Chemours,[2] a spin-off from DuPont, which originally discovered the compound in 1938.[2]

Polytetrafluoroethylene is a fluorocarbon solid (at room temperature), as it is a high-molecular-weight polymer consisting wholly of carbon and fluorine. PTFE is hydrophobic: neither water nor water-containing substances wet PTFE, as fluorocarbons demonstrate mitigated London dispersion forces due to the high electronegativity of fluorine. PTFE has one of the lowest coefficients of friction of any solid.

Polytetrafluoroethylene is used as a non-stick coating for pans and other cookware. It is non-reactive, partly because of the strength of carbon–fluorine bonds, and so it is often used in containers and pipework for reactive and corrosive chemicals. Where used as a lubricant, PTFE reduces friction, wear, and energy consumption of machinery. It is commonly used as a graft material in surgical interventions. It is also frequently employed as a coating on catheters; this interferes with the ability of bacteria and other infectious agents to adhere to catheters and cause hospital-acquired infections.

Advertisement for Zepel, the trade name used to market Teflon as a fabric treatment.
Teflon thermal cover showing impact craters, from NASA's Ultra Heavy Cosmic Ray Experiment (UHCRE) on the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF)
Logo of Teflon, the commonly known brand name of PTFE-based compositions manufactured by Chemours

Polytetrafluoroethylene was accidentally discovered in 1938 by Roy J. Plunkett while he was working in New Jersey for DuPont. As Plunkett attempted to make a new chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant, the tetrafluoroethylene gas in its pressure bottle stopped flowing before the bottle's weight had dropped to the point signaling "empty." Since Plunkett was measuring the amount of gas used by weighing the bottle, he became curious as to the source of the weight, and finally resorted to sawing the bottle apart. He found the bottle's interior coated with a waxy white material that was oddly slippery. Analysis showed that it was polymerized perfluoroethylene, with the iron from the inside of the container having acted as a catalyst at high pressure.[3] Kinetic Chemicals patented the new fluorinated plastic (analogous to the already known polyethylene) in 1941,[4] and registered the Teflon trademark in 1945.[5][6]

By 1948, DuPont, which founded Kinetic Chemicals in partnership with General Motors, was producing over two million pounds (900 tons) of Teflon brand Polytetrafluoroethylene per year in Parkersburg, West Virginia.[7] An early use was in the Manhattan Project as a material to coat valves and seals in the pipes holding highly reactive uranium hexafluoride at the vast K-25 uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.[8]

In 1954, Collette Grégoire, the wife of French engineer Marc Grégoire, urged him to try the material he had been using on fishing tackle on her cooking pans. He subsequently created the first PTFE-coated, non-stick pans under the brand name Tefal (combining "Tef" from "Teflon" and "al" from aluminium).[9] In the United States, Marion A. Trozzolo, who had been using the substance on scientific utensils, marketed the first US-made PTFE-coated pan, "The Happy Pan", in 1961.[10] Non-stick cookware has since become a common household product, now offered by hundreds of manufacturers across the world.

The brand name Zepel was used for promoting its stain-resistance and water-resistance when applied to fabrics.[11]

In the 1990s, it was found that PTFE could be radiation cross-linked above its melting point in an oxygen-free environment.[12] Electron beam processing is one example of radiation processing. Cross-linked Polytetrafluoroethylene has improved high-temperature mechanical properties and radiation stability. This was significant because, for many years, irradiation at ambient conditions has been used to break down Polytetrafluoroethylene for recycling.[13] This radiation-induced chain scission allows it to be more easily reground and reused.

PTFE is produced by free-radical polymerization of tetrafluoroethylene.[14] The net equation is

Because tetrafluoroethylene can explosively decompose to tetrafluoromethane and carbon, special apparatus is required for the polymerization to prevent hot spots that might initiate this dangerous side reaction. The process is typically initiated with persulfate, which homolyzes to generate sulfate radicals:

The resulting polymer is terminated with sulfate ester groups, which can be hydrolyzed to give OH end-groups.[15]

Because PTFE is poorly soluble in almost all solvents, the polymerization is conducted as an emulsion in water. This process gives a suspension of polymer particles. Alternatively, the polymerization is conducted using a surfactant such as perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).

PTFE is a thermoplastic polymer, which is a white solid at room temperature, with a density of about 2200 kg/m3 and a melting point of 600 K (327 °C; 620 °F).[16] It maintains high strength, toughness and self-lubrication at low temperatures down to 5 K (−268.15 °C; −450.67 °F), and good flexibility at temperatures above 194 K (−79 °C; −110 °F).[17] PTFE gains its properties from the aggregate effect of carbon-fluorine bonds, as do all fluorocarbons. The only chemicals known to affect these carbon-fluorine bonds are highly reactive metals like the alkali metals, and at higher temperatures also such metals as aluminum and magnesium, and fluorinating agents such as xenon difluoride and cobalt(III) fluoride.[18] At temperatures above 650–700 °C (1,200–1,290 °F) PTFE undergoes depolymerization.[19]

The coefficient of friction of plastics is usually measured against polished steel.[25] PTFE's coefficient of friction is 0.05 to 0.10,[16] which is the third-lowest of any known solid material (aluminium magnesium boride (BAM) being the first, with a coefficient of friction of 0.02; diamond-like carbon being second-lowest at 0.05). PTFE's resistance to van der Waals forces means that it is the only known surface to which a gecko cannot stick.[26] In fact, PTFE can be used to prevent insects from climbing up surfaces painted with the material. PTFE is so slippery that insects cannot get a grip and tend to fall off. For example, PTFE is used to prevent ants from climbing out of formicaria.

Because of its superior chemical and thermal properties, PTFE is often used as a gasket material within industries that require resistance to aggressive chemicals such as pharmaceuticals or chemical processing.[27] However, until the 1990s,[28] PTFE was not known to crosslink like an elastomer, due to its chemical inertness. Therefore, it has no "memory" and is subject to creep. Because of the propensity to creep, the long-term performance of such seals is worse than for elastomers that exhibit zero, or near-zero, levels of creep. In critical applications, Belleville washers are often used to apply continuous force to PTFE gaskets, thereby ensuring a minimal loss of performance over the lifetime of the gasket.[29]

Processing PTFE can be difficult and expensive, because the high melting temperature, 327 °C (621 °F), is above the initial decomposition temperature, 200 °C (392 °F).[30] Even when molten, PTFE does not flow due to its exceedingly high melt-viscosity.[31][32] The viscosity and melting point can be decreased by inclusion of small amount of comonomers such as perfluoro (propylvinyl ether) and hexafluoropropylene (HFP). These cause the otherwise perfectly linear PTFE chain to become branched, reducing its crystallinity.[33]

Some PTFE parts are made by cold-moulding, a form of compression molding.[34] Here, fine powdered PTFE is forced into a mould under high pressure (10–100 MPa).[34] After a settling period, lasting from minutes to days, the mould is heated at 360 to 380 °C (680 to 716 °F),[34] allowing the fine particles to fuse (sinter) into a single mass.[35]

The major application of PTFE, consuming about 50% of production, is for the insulation of wiring in aerospace and computer applications (e.g. hookup wire, coaxial cables). This application exploits the fact that PTFE has excellent dielectric properties, specifically low group velocity dispersion,[36] especially at high radio frequencies,[36] making it suitable for use as an excellent insulator in connector assemblies and cables, and in printed circuit boards used at microwave frequencies. Combined with its high melting temperature, this makes it the material of choice as a high-performance substitute for the weaker, higher dispersion and lower-melting-point polyethylene commonly used in low-cost applications.

In industrial applications, owing to its low friction, PTFE is used for plain bearings, gears, slide plates, seals, gaskets, bushings,[37] and more applications with sliding action of parts, where it outperforms acetal and nylon.[38]

Its extremely high bulk resistivity makes it an ideal material for fabricating long-life electrets, the electrostatic analogues of permanent magnets.

PTFE film is also widely used in the production of carbon fiber composites as well as fiberglass composites, notably in the aerospace industry. PTFE film is used as a barrier between the carbon or fiberglass part being built, and breather and bagging materials used to incapsulate the bondment when debulking (vacuum removal of air from between layers of laid-up plies of material) and when curing the composite, usually in an autoclave. The PTFE, used here as a film, prevents the non-production materials from sticking to the part being built, which is sticky due to the carbon-graphite or fiberglass plies being pre-pregnated with bismaleimide resin. Non-production materials such as Teflon, Airweave Breather and the bag itself would be considered F.O.D. (foreign object debris/damage) if left in layup.

Gore-Tex is a brand of expanded PTFE (ePTFE), a material incorporating a fluoropolymer membrane with micropores. The roof of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, US, was one of the largest applications of PTFE coatings. 20 acres (81,000 m2) of the material was used in the creation of the white double-layered PTFE-coated fiberglass dome.

Because of its extreme non-reactivity and high temperature rating, PTFE is often used as the liner in hose assemblies, expansion joints, and in industrial pipe lines, particularly in applications using acids, alkalis, or other chemicals. Its frictionless qualities allow improved flow of highly viscous liquids, and for uses in applications such as brake hoses.

PTFE is often found in musical instrument lubrication products; most commonly, valve oil.

PTFE is used in some aerosol lubricant sprays, including in micronized and polarized form. It is notable for its extremely low coefficient of friction, its hydrophobia (which serves to inhibit rust), and for the dry film it forms after application, which allows it to resist collecting particles that might otherwise form an abrasive paste.[39] Brands include GT85.[40]

PTFE is best known for its use in coating non-stick frying pans and other cookware, as it is hydrophobic and possesses fairly high heat resistance.

Pyrolysis of PTFE is detectable at 200 °C (392 °F), and it evolves several fluorocarbon gases and a sublimate. An animal study conducted in 1955 concluded that it is unlikely that these products would be generated in amounts significant to health at temperatures below 250 °C (482 °F).[30] PTFE in products like non-stick coated cookware has not been manufactured using PFOA since 2013,[57] and prior to this products containing PFOA (see Ecotoxicity) were not found to be major sources of exposure.[58]

While PTFE is stable and nontoxic at lower temperatures, it begins to deteriorate after the temperature of cookware reaches about 260 °C (500 °F), and decomposes above 350 °C (662 °F).[59] Over 400 °C (752 °F) pyrolysis occurs and more decomposition becomes significantly more rapid. The main decomposition products are tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) and difluorocarbene radicals (RCF2).[59] The degradation by-products can be lethal to birds,[60] and can cause flu-like symptoms[61] in humans—see polymer fume fever.

Meat is usually fried between 204 and 232 °C (399 and 450 °F), and most oils start to smoke before a temperature of 260 °C (500 °F) is reached, but there are at least two cooking oils (refined safflower oil at 265 °C (509 °F) and avocado oil at 271 °C (520 °F)) that have a higher smoke point. However these cases of polymer fume fever were mostly present in people who had cooked at 390 °C (734 °F) for at least 4 hours.[58]

Sodium trifluoroacetate and the similar compound chlorodifluoroacetate can both be generated when PTFE undergoes thermolysis, as well as producing longer chain polyfluoro- and/or polychlorofluoro- (C3-C14) carboxylic acids which may be equally persistent. Some of these products have recently been linked with possible adverse health and environmental impacts and are being phased out of the US market.[62]

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, or C8) has been used as a surfactant in the emulsion polymerization of PTFE, although several manufacturers have entirely discontinued its use.

PFOA persists indefinitely in the environment.[63] PFOA has been detected in the blood of many individuals of the general US population in the low and sub-parts per billion range, and levels are higher in chemical plant employees and surrounding subpopulations. PFOA and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) have been estimated to be in every American person’s blood stream in the parts per billion range, though those concentrations have decreased by 70% for PFOA and 84% for PFOS between 1999 and 2014, which coincides with the end of the production and phase out of PFOA and PFOS in the US.[64][65] The general population has been exposed to PFOA through massive dumping of C8 waste into the ocean and near the Ohio River Valley.[66][67][68] PFOA has been detected in industrial waste, stain-resistant carpets, carpet cleaning liquids, house dust, microwave popcorn bags, water, food and PTFE cookware.

As a result of a class-action lawsuit and community settlement with DuPont, three epidemiologists conducted studies on the population surrounding a chemical plant that was exposed to PFOA at levels greater than in the general population. The studies concluded that there was an association between PFOA exposure and six health outcomes: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol), and pregnancy-induced hypertension.[69]

Overall, PTFE cookware is considered a minor exposure pathway to PFOA.[70]

As a result of the lawsuits concerning the PFOA class-action lawsuit, DuPont began to use GenX, a similarly fluorinated compound, as a replacement for Perfluorooctanoic acid in the manufacture of fluoropolymers, such as Teflon.[71][72] However, in lab tests on rats, GenX has been shown to cause many of the same health problems as PFOA.[73][74]

The chemicals are manufactured by Chemours, a corporate spin-off of DuPont, in Fayetteville, North Carolina.[75] While PFOA was phased out by 2014, Chemours was already found to be dumping GenX into the Cape Fear River in 2017, with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) ordering Chemours to halt discharges of all fluorinated compounds on September 5, 2017.

Teflon is also used as the trade name for a polymer with similar properties, perfluoroalkoxy polymer resin (PFA)

The Teflon trade name is also used for other polymers with similar compositions:

These retain the useful PTFE properties of low friction and nonreactivity, but are also more easily formable. For example, FEP is softer than PTFE and melts at 533 K (260 °C; 500 °F); it is also highly transparent and resistant to sunlight.[76]