Phenol formaldehyde resins (PF) or phenolic resins are synthetic polymers obtained by the reaction of phenol or substituted phenol with formaldehyde. Used as the basis for Bakelite, PFs were the first commercial synthetic resins. They have been widely used for the production of molded products including billiard balls, laboratory countertops, and as coatings and adhesives. They were at one time the primary material used for the production of circuit boards but have been largely replaced with epoxy resins and fiberglass cloth, as with fire-resistant FR-4 circuit board materials.
There are two main production methods. One reacts phenol and formaldehyde directly to produce a thermosetting network polymer, while the other restricts the formaldehyde to produce a pre polymer known as novolac which can be moulded and then cured with the addition of more formaldehyde and heat. There are many variations in both production and input materials that are used to produce a wide variety of resins for special purposes.
Phenol-formaldehyde resins, as a group, are formed by a step-growth polymerization reaction that can be either acid- or base-catalysed. Since formaldehyde exists predominantly in solution as a dynamic equilibrium of methylene glycol oligomers, the concentration of the reactive form of formaldehyde depends on temperature and pH.
Phenol reacts with formaldehyde at the ortho and para sites (sites 2, 4 and 6) allowing up to 3 units of formaldehyde to attach to the ring. The initial reaction in all cases involves the formation of a hydroxymethyl phenol:
HOC6H5 + CH2O → HOC6H4CH2OH
The hydroxymethyl group is capable of reacting with either another free ortho or para site, or with another hydroxymethyl group. The first reaction gives a methylene bridge, and the second forms an ether bridge:
HOC6H4CH2OH + HOC6H5 → (HOC6H4)2CH2 + H2O
2 HOC6H4CH2OH → (HOC6H4CH2)2O + H2O
The diphenol (HOC6H4)2CH2 (sometimes called a “dimer”) is called bisphenol F, which is an important monomer in the production of epoxy resins. Bisphenol-F can further link generating tri- and tetra-and higher phenol oligomers.