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Material for an Architectural Revolution

ETFE, a fluorocarbon-based polymer, is a durable, adaptable plastic that's opening horizons for builders at the Beijing Olympics and beyond

Imagine a swimming arena made out of bubbles. Or a stadium knit from steel girders like a bird's nest. Or even an enormous tent, proudly covering over a million square feet of space. A decade ago, such buildings might have existed only in the imagination. Today, they're being built in Beijing as China's new National Stadium and National Aquatics Center and as the Khan Shatyry Entertainment Center in Astana, Kazakhstan. All thanks to innovative architects, adroit engineers—and the unusual properties of the material called ETFE.

ETFE may be about to get its moment in the architectural spotlight, but in fact, it has been around since the 1970s, when DuPont invented a fluorocarbon-based polymer, Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene, for use as an insulation material in the aeronautics industry.