Can a single material help protect workers’ lives? Can it help make homes more comfortable and energy efficient? Can it help battle the spread of a deadly disease?
If the material in question is DuPont™ Tyvek®, the answer is “yes.”
From its chance discovery in a 1950s lab, Tyvek® has become an essential ingredient in the human endeavor, known the world over for its unique combination of barrier protection, breathability and toughness. This year, as Tyvek® celebrates its 50th anniversary as a commercial product, it’s a chance to look back—and forward—to where this material has been, and the places it will go.
At a DuPont research facility in 1955, scientist Jim White noticed that when solvent was “flashed off” during the production of linear polyethylene, a white fluff was left behind—an intricate web of interconnected filaments. White’s discovery gave rise to a research program led by his colleague, Herbert Blades, which in turn introduced the world to a new kind of material: One that combined the best attributes of paper, fabric and film. One that required no chemical binders. One that was tear- and puncture-resistant, with a microporous surface that repelled liquids but allowed the escape of water vapor. In 1965, DuPont registered a trademark for its novel spunbonded olefin product: Tyvek®.
Early experiments with Tyvek® focused on its use for unglamorous purposes like book covers and labels, but it was soon clear that the material’s superior strength was a natural for envelopes and other shipping materials. Tyvek® proved a worthy companion to the postal workers’ unofficial motto of “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night...” Unlike manila, white or Kraft paper envelopes that practically melt away when exposed to significant moisture, Tyvek® material sheds water and is ten times stronger than paper at only half the weight. Mailers made with Tyvek® also resist tearing and puncturing, making them ideal for getting important documents and sensitive materials to their destinations without damage.
In 1965, at a General Motors auto assembly plant in Newport, Delaware, DuPont set out to demonstrate the suitability of garments made with Tyvek® as a disposable alternative to coveralls for dirty jobs. The pilot program was a success, and Tyvek® apparel soon became an essential asset at manufacturing plants and other industrial settings across the country.
Today, Tyvek® remains the benchmark for jobsite protective clothing. And its barrier performance isn’t limited to dirt and grease. In fact, garments made with Tyvek® provide effective yet economical protection against particulate hazards including asbestos, lead and many dry chemicals.
Unlike film- or laminate-based garments, the protection of Tyvek® is “inherent,” i.e., built into the material itself and unable to be worn away. Single-use Tyvek® garments also enable workers to shed their clothes at work, helping prevent the spread of “take-home toxins”—hazardous substances that can travel home on clothes, shoes, and skin and affect others, including young children.
Tyvek® garments also help protect final products. Their low-linting surface and ability to contain human contaminants like dead skin have also made their use essential in cleanrooms during pharmaceutical and electronics manufacture.
Water isn’t the only thing that Tyvek® keeps out. Early testing showed that Tyvek® holds back microbial threats better than other porous packaging materials. For most of its history, Tyvek® has been used as sterile packaging for medical devices, helping protect the health of millions of patients worldwide in the process. As medical packaging, Tyvek® provides exceptional tear and puncture resistance, breathability and outstanding microbial barrier performance, helping keep medical devices sterile until the point of use.
Unlike medical-grade papers, Tyvek® is compatible with all of the most commonly used sterilization methods, including ethylene oxide, gamma, electron beam, steam and low-temperature oxidative sterilization.