The One That Got Away

Lesson Overview

Before Carothers had given the world nylon 6-6, his scientists tried to make another kind of nylon. They tried to carry out a ring-opening polymerization on caprolactam:

A ring-opening polymerization is a chemical reaction in which small ring-shaped molecules are opened, and then joined together to make a long macromolecule.

Carothers and his team never succeeded in making this other nylon, nylon 6. In fact he wrote that it could not be done! But German chemist Paul Schlak did what Carothers and his team could not, making caprolactam into nylon 6. He was working for the giant chemical company IG Farben at the time, which meant that IG Farben had a product to compete with DuPont's nylon.

Today you are going to do what Wallace Carothers never could. You are going to make nylon 6 for yourself.

Student Grouping

Students may work individually or in small groups.

Time and Materials Required

This activity will require one 45-minute class period to conduct the lab activity.


  • Caprolactam
  • Polyoxyethylene
  • N-acetylcaprolactam
  • Sodium hydride (NaH)
  • 18 × 20 test tube
  • 2 spatulas
  • Disposable pipette
  • Tongs
  • Bunsen burner
  • Safety goggles

Learning Objectives

  • Students will gain an understanding of polymerization.
  • Students will recognize Wallace Carothers’ and Paul Schlack’s contributions to the development of polymers.

National Science Education Standards

Unifying Concepts and Processes

  • Systems, order, and organization.
  • Form and function.

Science as Inquiry

  • An appreciation of "how we know" what we know in science.

Physical Science Structure and properties of matter

  • Chemical reactions

Science and Technology

  • Abilities of technological design
  • Understanding about science and technology

History and Nature of Science

  • Science as a human endeavor
  • Historical perspective

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