A Deep Dive Into The Chemistry Of Retrobright

Considerable effort is often required to rejuvenate the yellowed and grungy plastic cases of retrocomputing gear. One generally does well to know their enemy in order to fight it, though, which is where this guide to the chemistry of plastic yellowing and whitening (PDF) comes in handy.

“The Retrobright Mystery” was written and sent in to us by a high school student who goes by the name [Saltypretzel]. The paper begins with an excellent description of the chemistry of plastic yellowing. We had always heard that the yellowing in ABS, or acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, the plastic most commonly used for cases back in the day, was primarily caused by brominated compounds added to the plastic as flame retardants. It turns out that’s only a minor contributor, with the bulk of yellowing occurring thanks to a complex chain of reactions starting with free radicals liberated from the butadiene copolymer through a reaction requiring oxygen and energy.

Reactive radicals from the decomposing synthetic rubber, added to ABS to increase its flexibility, unroll the benzene ring in styrene copolymers to form a conjugated compound called 2-hydroxymuconic acid. The alternating double and single bonds in this compound tend to absorb light towards the blue end of the spectrum strongly, so the accumulation of 2-HMA in the plastic over time thus makes it reflect more and more yellow and red wavelengths, giving aged ABS its unhealthy bronze glow.

Luckily, just as ketchup smears and grass stains, both rich in conjugated compounds like lycopene and chlorophyll, can be bleached out of existence, so too can yellowed plastics. [Saltypretzel] notes that Retrobright, which contains a powerful dose of hydrogen peroxide, does its whitening trick by breaking the UV-absorbing double bonds in 2-HMA. There’s little that can be done about the embrittlement of the ABS caused by the breakdown of butadiene copolymers, but at least it’ll look good.

We found this guide quite comprehensive and instructive, and it should only help retrocomputing fans in their restoration efforts. For those less interested in the chemistry, [Bob Baddeley] published an overview of the yellowing of plastic and manufacturing steps to avoid it, and we covered the more practical considerations of Retrobright treatment too.