Polymers are chemical compounds made up of single molecules bound together in long chains. These single molecules – which are known as monomers – may gain new material properties when they are strung together to form polymers. Although the word ‘polymer’ is often used interchangeably with ‘synthetic material’, this is a misleading synonym. Many polymers are naturally occurring, and many synthetic materials are not polymers. The most common polymer in the world is cellulose – a naturally occurring polymer that forms the walls of plants and is the main ingredient in paper. This article will not focus on naturally occurring polymers like cellulose. Instead, it is a quick guide to some of the human-made polymers in use today.
Polymer companies like Polychemistry.com are constantly attempting to synthesize new and improved materials. A great issue that haunts the polymer industry is the lack of water solubility most polymers display. This means that they never break down in the environment and continue to cause issues for future generations of humans and animals. Aquazol is a fully water-soluble polymer that is used in adhesives: potentially ushering in a wave of environmentally friendly synthetic materials. Research into sustainable polymers is essential.
Polythene is the most commonly produced synthetic polymer. It is used in the creation of plastic bags and bottles. Its best feature is also its most controversial. Polythene is extremely resistant to degradation and can remain intact for hundreds – if not thousands of years. Polythene structures do eventually degrade as a reaction to ultraviolet light, but plastic bags are still expected to litter our oceans 500 years from now.
Nylon is not a single polymer, but a name for a series of polymers created using extremely heavy molecules. These polymers are usually produced as fibers and made into breathable clothing. Nylon polymers were one of the first synthetic materials to be used for clothing on a mass scale. It was first developed in the United States during the 1930s using petroleum byproducts.
When styrene is polymerized, it forms – you guessed it – polystyrene. Polystyrene might be hated by some, but it does have some immensely useful properties. First and foremost, polystyrene is a great insulator. It is frequently used in home insulation and in the food service industry to keep things hot or cold. Polystyrene is also highly buoyant. The polymer is used for the filling of life preservers and floats for saving lives in marine environments.
Lexan is a polycarbonate resin thermoplastic that is also known as merlon. Both Merlon and Lexan are brand names. General Electric and Beyer discovered the formula for this material within one week of each other. This polymer has extremely high transparency and high shatter resistance. For this reason, one of the primary ways in which it is put to use is in bulletproof ‘glass’. Lexan can be treated to look nearly identical to glass – but it possesses a much higher resistance to kinetic energy making it sturdier and safer to use.