Cellulose acetate

Structural formula of cellulose acetate. The chemical formula shows a section of cellulose with two acetyl groups per glucose module.

Cellulose acetate is the acetate ester of cellulose. It was first prepared in 1865. Cellulose acetate is used as a film base in photography, as a component in some coatings, and as a frame material for eyeglasses;[1] it is also used as a synthetic fiber in the manufacture of cigarette filters and playing cards. In photographic film, cellulose acetate replaced nitrate film in the 1950s, being far less flammable and cheaper to produce.


Acetate foil for laminating

In 1865, Paul Schützenberger discovered that cellulose reacts with acetic anhydride to form cellulose acetate. The German chemists Arthur Eichengrün and Theodore Becker invented the first soluble forms of cellulose acetate in 1903.[2]

In 1904, Camille Dreyfus and his younger brother Henri performed chemical research and development on cellulose acetate in a shed in their father's garden in Basel, Switzerland, which was then a center of the dye industry. For five years, the Dreyfus brothers studied and experimented in a systematic manner in Switzerland and France. By 1910, they were producing film for the motion picture industry, and a small but constantly growing amount of acetate lacquer, called "dope", was sold to the expanding aircraft industry to coat the fabric covering wings and fuselage.[3]

In 1913, after some twenty thousand separate experiments, they produced excellent laboratory samples of continuous filament yarn, something that had eluded the cellulose acetate industry to this time.[3] Unfortunately the outbreak of World War I postponed commercial development of this process.

In November 1914, the British Government invited Dr. Camille Dreyfus to come to England to manufacture acetate dope, and the "British Cellulose and Chemical Manufacturing Co" was set up. In 1917, after the United States had entered the war, the U.S. War Department invited Dr. Dreyfus to establish a similar factory in the US. Both operations were run successfully throughout the war.

After the war, attention returned to the production of acetate fibers. The first yarn was of fair quality, but sales resistance was heavy, and silk associates worked zealously to discredit acetate and discourage its use. However, the thermoplastic nature of acetate made it an excellent fiber for moiré, because the pattern was permanent and did not wash away. The same characteristic also made permanent pleating a commercial fact for the first time, and gave great style impetus to the whole dress industry.[3]

The mixing of silk and acetate in fabrics was accomplished at the beginning and almost at once cotton was also blended, thus making possible low-cost fabrics by means of a fiber which then was cheaper than silk or acetate. Today, acetate is blended with silk, cotton, wool, nylon, etc. to give fabrics excellent wrinkle recovery, good heft, handle, draping quality, quick drying, proper dimensional stability, cross-dye pattern potential, at a very competitive price.[3]

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