A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

If Teflon is nonsticky, how do they get it to stick to the pan?

January 13, 1995

Dear Cecil:

Everyone is familiar with Teflon, that nonstick surface no self-respecting housewife can do without. If'n it works so well slippin' and slidin' yer flapjacks, how do they get it to stick to the pan in the first place?

Cecil replies:

Smart-aleck radio hosts think this one is sooo funny. Obviously they don't remember the first Teflon pans in the 1960s, which required special non-scratchy cooking utensils, lest you scrape the Teflon off. Fact is, the reaction when Teflon was invented pretty much consisted of, "Whoa, Teflon, the nonstick miracle! So tell us, genius, how do we make it stick to the pan?"

Teflon, known to science as polytetrafluoroethylene, is a pain to work with because it's nonsticky in all directions, the pan side (the bottom) as well as the food side (the top). Teflon is a fluorinated polymer, a polymer being a passel of identical building-block molecules linked together to make a long chain — the stuff of most plastics. Fluorine, due to certain electrochemical properties you'll thank me for not explaining now, bonds so tightly with the carbon in Teflon that it's virtually impossible for other substances, e.g., scrambled egg crud, to get a chemical-type grip or, for that matter, for Teflon to get a grip on anything else. In addition, the finished Teflon surface is extremely smooth, giving said egg crud little chance to get a mechanical-type grip.

So how do they get Teflon to stick to the pan? First they sandblast the pan to create a lot of microscratches on its surface. Then they spray on a coat of Teflon primer. This primer, like most primers, is thin, enabling it to flow into the micro-scratches. The primed surface is then baked at high heat, causing the Teflon to solidify and get a reasonably secure mechanical grip. Next you spray on a finish coat and bake that. (The Teflon finish coat will stick to the Teflon primer coat just fine.) Works a lot better than the early Teflon pans, but you can still ruin Teflon cookware by subjecting it to extremely high heat. This causes the bonds between some of the carbon atoms to break, giving other undesirable stuff a chance to bond thereto and making the Teflon look like Jeff Goldblum in the last reel of The Fly.

Scientists continue to search for something better, and recent reports suggest they may have succeeded. Dow Chemical researcher Donald Schmidt has come up with another fluorinated polymer that can be used like paint and cured with moderate (as opposed to high) heat. Even better, you wind up with a coating that's nonsticky on only one side, presumably the outside. The only drawback: Schmidt's coating won't withstand heat. That doesn't matter if you're trying to make, say, graffiti-proof wall tile, but don't look for Schmidtlon-coated frying pans anytime soon.

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