Cellulose ester

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Before oil was discovered, the earliest synthetic polymers were made by chemically modifying naturally occurring bio-based molecules like Cellulose. Cellulose nitrate (CN), invented in 1832 and patented in 1846, was adapted for use as a substitute for ivory, a base for photographic film, and as a component for clear lacquers, adhesives, and high gloss paints. Cellulose acetate (CA), invented in 1865 and patented in 1894, replaced cellulose nitrate because its flammability was lower than that of CN. Both materials can decompose at room temperature. Ultraviolet light, heat, and/or high humidity may hasten decomposition. Both materials remain commercially available and are used as adhesives and coatings. More recently, other cellulose esters have been developed with better properties in respect to weathering, adhesion, and lacquer formation, including Cellulose acetate butyrate (CAB) and Cellulose acetate propionate (CAP).

Synonyms and Related Terms

cellulose plastic; ésteres de la celulosa (Esp.); estere di cellulosa (It.); éster de celulose (Port.)


  • Ivory substitutes
  • Photographic film
  • Clear lacquers and adhesives


  • Flammable (especially celulose nitrate)
  • Unstable in normal conditions
  • Degradation increased with UV light, heat and high humidities

Resources and Citations

  • Theodore J. Reinhart, 'Glossary of Terms', Engineered Plastics, ASM International, 1988
  • Matt Roberts, Don Etherington, Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: a Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1982
  • Book and Paper Group, Paper Conservation Catalog, AIC, 1984, 1989

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