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Summary Article: DuPont
from Encyclopedia of Nanoscience and Society

E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (DuPont) is an American chemical company, the second largest chemical company in the world by market capitalization, the fourth in revenue, and somewhat more ignominiously, the country's leading air polluter. Founded as a gunpowder company, DuPont led the 20th-century revolution in polymers and has recently entered into a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to develop adequate risk assessment for nanotechnology products.

French-born industrialist Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, a refugee from the French Revolution, imported gunpowder machinery from France to Wilmington, Delaware, to found his gunpowder mill in 1802. The company expanded when du Pont realized that the United States was lagging behind Europe in the Industrial Revolution, and by the time of the Civil War, his company has become the leading supplier of gunpowder to the American military, providing most of the powder used by the Union Army. Dynamite and smokeless powder followed, and when three of Éleuthère's great-grandsons bought the company from its managing partners in 1902, they began expanding rapidly. Their acquisition of other chemical companies triggered an antitrust investigation, which ruled that they had gained a monopoly over the explosives industry, requiring the divestment of some of their assets in the form of the Hercules Powder Company and the Atlas Powder Company—now Hercules, Inc., and AstraZeneca, respectively.

Materials science soon eclipsed explosives in importance, and from the late 1920s to the 1930s, DuPont's team, led by organic chemist Wallace Carothers, developed neoprene (the first synthetic rubber), a polyester superpolymer, nylon, Lucite (a hard plastic sold under brand names including Plexiglas), and nonstick coating Teflon—substances still common and still household names today. World War II brought major military contracts, not only for gunpowder and explosives, but for parachutes, tires, and other equipment. DuPont was instrumental in the Manhattan Project, and in later decades provided materials to the Apollo space program. Mylar, Dacron, Lycra, Corian, and Tyvek joined the DuPont line of synthetic materials in the 1950s and 1960s, and when Kevlar was developed, DuPont quickly became one of the most important manufacturers of body armor, supplying military and police forces around the world.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, DuPont benefited from its 1981 acquisition of oil and natural gas company Conoco Inc., which gave it easy access to the petroleum needed to manufacture many of its plastics and polymers. (Something of the scale of DuPont's chemical operations is indicated by the fact that the action that made it one of the country's 10 biggest petroleum producers was taken for the sake of such ancillary benefits.) In 1999, the company sold its interest in Conoco, which subsequently merged with the Phillips Petroleum Company. Getting out of the petroleum business was part of then-CEO (and current chairman) Charles Holliday's commitment to sustainable development, with the hopes of producing more materials derived from plants instead of petroleum. In another shift of focus, the textiles business was sold in 2004 to Koch Industries; DuPont textiles included Dacron polyester, Orlon acrylic, Thermolite Lycra, and Lycra.

DuPont in the 21st Century

The company now identifies as a science products and services company, rather than a chemical company, and organizes its product lines into five areas it calls marketing platforms: agriculture and nutrition, coatings and color technologies, electronic and communication technologies, performance materials, and safety and protection. Headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware, DuPont has over 300 locations in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Its annual research and development budget is over $1 billion, and its active and aggressive pursuit of new technologies has been a hallmark of the corporation since the early 20th century.

That DuPont is the country's largest air polluter (annually producing pollutants that include 4 million pounds of carbonyl sulfide, 2 million pounds of hydrochloric acid, and 800,000 pounds of sulfuric acid). Despite its decade-old commitment to sustainability and reducing its environmental impact, the fact that they continue to pollute to such an extent is perhaps in part due to the sheer size of the company and its domestic plants. Its greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by more than 65 percent from 1990 to 2005 (at which point Business Week named the company the leader in greenhouse gas reduction), while product volume increased by 30 percent in that same time period.

Holliday briefly chaired the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a global association of 200 companies of which DuPont is a founding member. Though the company's products are in some cases criticized for the harm they've caused, the company has always been quick to correct its course: the inventor of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), DuPont controlled 25 percent of the CFC market in 1988 when they announced that they would begin their exit from the CFC business completely. The decision came on the heels of the Montreal Protocol, which declared an international commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and occured less than two weeks after the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that CFCs were responsible for thinning the ozone layer worldwide. Once the leader in CFCs, DuPont became the leader in CFC replacements almost overnight.

Like most major chemical companies, DuPont has been interested in the use of nanoparticles and other nanoscience innovations. The company has made considerable advances with carbon nanotubes, publishing a study in a 2009 issue of Nature on a technique developed by a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded team of DuPont scientists and Lehigh University researchers, using DNA to sort carbon nanotubes—an integration of biology and materials science that promises significant potential for further development.

Since 2005, the company has been active—arguably, the most active major corporation—in the ongoing attempt to adequate assess the risks of nanoproducts. In conjunction with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), DuPont developed a framework for the responsible development, production, use, and disposal of nanoscale materials. The framework defines a systematic and disciplined process that can be used to identify, manage, and reduce potential health, safety, and environmental risks of nanoscale materials across all life-cycle stages. Both parties declared that such a framework—made available to the public at www.nanoriskframework.com—was simply good business sense. From DuPont's standpoint, it also makes sense to gather information that will better inform the inevitable regulation that will govern the nanoscience industries, rather than take the risk that such regulation will be swayed by paranoia and layman fears, as many argue has happened in the biotech field. When the advocacy by the EDF, Consumer Reports, and other agencies for better nanomaterials risk assessment led to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) voluntary Nanomaterials Stewardship Program, DuPont was the first company to submit its product information. The program is designed in part to better inform EPA about the nanomaterials in use, in order to guide regulations and policy.

See Also

Carbon Nanotubes, Environmental Ethics/Philosphy and Nanotechnology, Nanomaterials, Nano Risk Framework, Risk Assessment, United States.

Further Readings
  • Chandler, Alfred du Pont and Salsbury, Stephen Pierre S. Du Pont and the Making of the Modern Corporation. Frederick, MD: Beard Books, 2001.
  • Chandler, Alfred du Pont. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Fishbine, Glenn. The Investor's Guide to Nanotechnology and Micromachines. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
  • Kte'pi, Bill
    Independent Scholar
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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