The slipperiest stuff known to man, Teflon has made a tremendous impact on the world. Invented by accident in 1938, it has gone on to become a substance in all kinds of household items. Dr. Kiki gives us the skinny in this episode of Food Science.
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Hi, I’m Dr Kiki Sanford and today in food science, we’re gonna slip through the science of Teflon. Polytetrafluoroethylene, it’s the slipperiest stuff made by man but perhaps you know it better as Teflon. Although it has been a familiar kitchen feature on non-stick cook ware since the 1960s, Teflon has also made a tremendous impact in the industrial world. It can be found everywhere from electronics to aeronautics to clothes. You might even have a pair of pants with Teflon embedded in the fabric. I do but don’t tell anyone. Ssshh, it’s a secret, ssshh. It was invented serendipitously in 1938 by a young chemist named Roy Plunket. He was trying to create a CFC gas refrigerant for EI Depont Denomours and Company, now known as Depont. However, instead of a gas, he went up with a slippery polymer powder. Mr. Plunket patented the powder as Polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE. The substance found its first use in a gaskets in a seals and a development of the atomic bomb. PTFE is a long chain carbon polymer surrounded by fluoride atoms. The fluoride atoms fully enclosed the carbon chain so that it can't react with other molecules making PTFE one of the most generic substances in the world. It wasn’t until 1944 that Dupont actually trademarked the name Teflon which has since become a household name for non-stick. By now you’re probably pretty sick of this history lesson, just wondering how the heck this slippery stuff manages to stick to anything, let alone your frying pans. Well, it’s actually pretty simple. The pans have to be dipped in hydrochloric acid to roughen up and edge the surface of the pan so that the PTFE will stick to it. Then they apply some kind of a sticky substance that adheres the PTFE to the surface. It some sort of sticky substance but they won't tell us what it is. It’s an industrial secret. They’d have to kill us if we told you. So I’m gonna keep it a secret. They finally spray the PTFE on and the whole thing gets cooked to 425 degrees Celsius to melt and gel the PTFE on to the pan’s surface. The question most people have these days is whether Teflon is safe. Like I said before, PTFE is an inert and non-toxic chemical but it does begin to break down at temperatures over 260 degrees Celsius which can lead to the release of potentially toxic chemical bi-products. Those fumes are toxic to birds and potentially cause flu like symptoms in people. So as long as you’re cooking foods at reasonable temperatures, you should be fine but what about cancer? You may have heard that Teflon causes cancer. It’s not Teflon itself but a compound called PFOA, perfluoro octinoic acid that’s used in the making of Teflon might be carcinogenic. Dupont is currently looking for a substitute for PFOA but they say that Teflon can't be made without it. Yet scientific studies have shown that you’re more likely to run into PFOA in your carpet than you are in a non-stick frying pan. Mainly, the health concerns around Teflon center around its production and not its use. So I’m gonna keep using my pans. There’s no scientific reason not to. But remember, it’s not just food, it’s science.

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