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The Basics: Polymer Definition and Properties


The Structure of Polymers
Molecular Arrangement of Polymers
Characteristics of Polymers
Solid Waste Management

If you’re after basic information on plastic materials, this is the place to find it. Here you’ll learn the definition and properties of polymers, another name for plastics.

The simplest definition of a polymer is a useful chemical made of many repeating units. A polymer can be a three dimensional network (think of the repeating units linked together left and right, front and back, up and down) or two-dimensional network (think of the repeating units linked together left, right, up, and down in a sheet) or a one-dimensional network (think of the repeating units linked left and right in a chain). Each repeating unit is the “-mer” or basic unit with “poly-mer” meaning many repeating units. Repeating units are often made of carbon and hydrogen and sometimes oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, chlorine, fluorine, phosphorous, and silicon. To make the chain, many links or “-mers” are chemically hooked or polymerized together. Linking countless strips of construction paper together to make paper garlands or hooking together hundreds of paper clips to form chains, or stringing beads helps visualize polymers. Polymers occur in nature and can be made to serve specific needs. Manufactured polymers can be three-dimensional networks that do not melt once formed. Such networks are called THERMOSET polymers. Epoxy resins used in two-part adhesives are thermoset plastics. Manufactured polymers can also be one-dimensional chains that can be melted.  These chains are THERMOPLASTIC polymers and are also called LINEAR polymers. Plastic bottles, films, cups, and fibers are thermoplastic plastics.

Polymers abound in nature. The ultimate natural polymers are the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA) that define life. Spider silk, hair, and horn are protein polymers. Starch can be a polymer as is cellulose in wood. Rubber tree latex and cellulose have been used as raw material to make manufactured polymeric rubber and plastics. The first synthetic manufactured plastic was Bakelite, created in 1909 for telephone casing and electrical components. The first manufactured polymeric fiber was Rayon, from cellulose, in 1910. Nylon was invented in 1935 while pursuing a synthetic spider silk.

The Structure of Polymers

Many common classes of polymers are composed of hydrocarbons, compounds of carbon and hydrogen. These polymers are specifically made of carbon atoms bonded together, one to the next, into long chains that are called the backbone of the polymer. Because of the nature of carbon, one or more other atoms can be attached to each carbon atom in the backbone. There are polymers that contain only carbon and hydrogen atoms. Polyethylene, polypropylene, polybutylene, polystyrene and polymethylpentene are examples of these. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has chlorine attached to the all-carbon backbone. Teflon has fluorine attached to the all-carbon backbone.

Other common manufactured polymers have backbones that include elements other than carbon. Nylons contain nitrogen atoms in the repeat unit backbone. Polyesters and polycarbonates contain oxygen in the backbone. There are also some polymers that, instead of having a carbon backbone, have a silicon or phosphorous backbone. These are considered inorganic polymers. One of the more famous silicon-based polymers is Silly Putty®.

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Molecular Arrangement of Polymers

Think of how spaghetti noodles look on a plate. These are similar to how linear polymers can be arranged if they lack specific order, or are amorphous. Controlling the polymerization process and quenching molten polymers can result in amorphous organization. An amorphous arrangement of molecules has no long-range order or form in which the polymer chains arrange themselves. Amorphous polymers are generally transparent. This is an important characteristic for many applications such as food wrap, plastic windows, headlight lenses and contact lenses.

Obviously not all polymers are transparent. The polymer chains in objects that are translucent and opaque may be in a crystalline arrangement. By definition, a crystalline arrangement has atoms, ions, or in this case, molecules arranged in distinct patterns. You generally think of crystalline structures in table salt and gemstones, but they can occur in plastics. Just as quenching can produce amorphous arrangements, processing can control the degree of crystallinity for those polymers that are able to crystallize.  Some polymers are designed to never be able to crystallize. Others are designed to be able to be crystallized. The higher the degree of crystallinity, generally, the less light can pass through the polymer. Therefore, the degree of translucence or opaqueness of the polymer can be directly affected by its crystallinity.  Crystallinity creates benefits in strength, stiffness, chemical resistance, and stability.

Scientists and engineers are always producing more useful materials by manipulating the molecular structure that affects the final polymer produced. Manufacturers and processors introduce various fillers, reinforcements and additives into the base polymers, expanding product possibilities.

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Characteristics of Polymers

The majority of manufactured polymers are thermoplastic, meaning that once the polymer is formed it can be heated and reformed over and over again. This property allows for easy processing and facilitates recycling. The other group, the thermosets, cannot be remelted. Once these polymers are formed, reheating will cause the material to ultimately degrade, but not melt.

Every polymer has very distinct characteristics, but most polymers have the following general attributes.

  1. Polymers can be very resistant to chemicals. Consider all the cleaning fluids in your home that are packaged in plastic. Reading the warning labels that describe what happens when the chemical comes in contact with skin or eyes or is ingested will emphasize the need for chemical resistance in the plastic packaging. While solvents easily dissolve some plastics, other plastics provide safe, non-breakable packages for aggressive solvents.

  2. Polymers can be both thermal and electrical insulators. A walk through your house will reinforce this concept, as you consider all the appliances, cords, electrical outlets and wiring that are made or covered with polymeric materials. Thermal resistance is evident in the kitchen with pot and pan handles made of polymers, the coffee pot handles, the foam core of refrigerators and freezers, insulated cups, coolers, and microwave cookware. The thermal underwear that many skiers wear is made of polypropylene and the fiberfill in winter jackets is acrylic and polyester.

  3. Generally, polymers are very light in weight with significant degrees of strength. Consider the range of applications, from toys to the frame structure of space stations, or from delicate nylon fiber in pantyhose to Kevlar, which is used in bulletproof vests. Some polymers float in water while others sink.  But, compared to the density of stone, concrete, steel, copper, or aluminum, all plastics are lightweight materials.

  4. Polymers can be processed in various ways. Extrusion produces thin fibers or heavy pipes or films or food bottles. Injection molding can produce very intricate parts or large car body panels. Plastics can be molded into drums or be mixed with solvents to become adhesives or paints. Elastomers and some plastics stretch and are very flexible. Some plastics are stretched in processing to hold their shape, such as soft drink bottles. Other polymers can be foamed like polystyrene (Styrofoam™), polyurethane and polyethylene.

  5. Polymers are materials with a seemingly limitless range of characteristics and colors. Polymers have many inherent properties that can be further enhanced by a wide range of additives to broaden their uses and applications. Polymers can be made to mimic cotton, silk, and wool fibers; porcelain and marble; and aluminum and zinc. Polymers can also make possible products that do not readily come from the natural world, such as clear sheets and flexible films.

  6. Polymers are usually made of petroleum, but not always. Many polymers are made of repeat units derived from natural gas or coal or crude oil.  But building block repeat units can sometimes be made from renewable materials such as polylactic acid from corn or cellulosics from cotton linters. Some plastics have always been made from renewable materials such as cellulose acetate used for screwdriver handles and gift ribbon.  When the building blocks can be made more economically from renewable materials than from fossil fuels, either old plastics find new raw materials or new plastics are introduced.

  7. Polymers can be used to make items that have no alternatives from other materials.  Polymers can be made into clear, waterproof films. PVC is used to make medical tubing and blood bags that extend the shelf life of blood and blood products. PVC safely delivers flammable oxygen in non-burning flexible tubing.  And anti-thrombogenic material, such as heparin, can be incorporated into flexible PVC catheters for open heart surgery, dialysis, and blood collection. Many medical devices rely on polymers to permit effective functioning.

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Solid Waste Management

In addressing all the superior attributes of polymers, it is equally important to discuss some of the challenges associated with the materials. Most plastics deteriorate in full sunlight, but never decompose completely when buried in landfills. However, other materials such as glass, paper, or aluminum do not readily decompose in landfills either. Some bioplastics do decompose to carbon dioxide and water, however, in specially designed food waste commercial composting facilities ONLY. They do not biodegrade under other circumstances.  

For 20051 the EPA characterization of municipal solid waste before recycling for the United States showed plastics made up 11.8 percent of our trash by weight compared to paper that constituted 34.2 percent. Glass and metals made up 12.8 percent by weight.  And yard trimmings constituted 13.1 percent of municipal solid waste by weight. Food waste made up 11.9 percent of municipal solid waste. The characteristics that make polymers so attractive and useful, lightweight and almost limitless physical forms of many polymers designed to deliver specific appearance and functionality, make post-consumer recycling challenging. When enough used plastic items can be gathered together, companies develop technology to recycle those used plastics. The recycling rate for all plastics is not as high as any would want. But, the recycling rate for the 1,170,000,000 pounds of polyester bottles, 23.1%, recycled in 2005 and the 953,000,000 pounds of high density polyethylene bottles, 28.8%, recycled in 2005 show that when critical mass of defined material is available, recycling can be a commercial success2.

Applications for recycled plastics are growing every day. Recycled plastics can be blended with virgin plastic (plastic that has not been processed before) without sacrificing properties in many applications. Recycled plastics are used to make polymeric timbers for use in picnic tables, fences and outdoor playgrounds, thus providing low maintenance, no splinters products and saving natural lumber. Plastic from soft drink and water bottles can be spun into fiber for the production of carpet or made into new food bottles. Closed loop recycling does occur, but sometimes the most valuable use for a recycled plastic is into an application different than the original use.

An option for plastics that are not recycled, especially those that are soiled, such as used food wrap or diapers, can be a waste-to-energy system (WTE). In 2005, 13.6% of US municipal solid waste was processed in WTE systems1. When localities decide to use waste-to-energy systems to manage solid waste, plastics can be a useful component. 

The controlled combustion of polymers produces heat energy. The heat energy produced by the burning plastic municipal waste not only can be converted to electrical energy but also helps burn the wet trash that is present. Paper also produces heat when burned, but not as much as do plastics. On the other hand, glass, aluminum and other metals do not release any energy when burned.

To better understand the incineration process, consider the smoke coming off a burning item.  If one were to ignite the smoke with a lit propane torch, one would observe that the smoke disappears. This exercise illustrates that the by-products of incomplete burning are still flammable. Proper incineration burns the material and the by-products of the initial burning and also takes care of air and solid emissions to insure public safety.

Some plastics can be composted either because of special additives or because of the construction of the polymers.  Compostable plastics frequently require more intense conditions to decompose than are available in backyard compost piles.  Commercial composters are suggested for compostable plastics.  In 20051, composting processed 8.4% of US municipal solid waste.

Plastics can also be safely land filled, although the valuable energy resource of the plastics would then be lost for recycling or energy capture.  In 20051, 54.3% of US municipal solid waste was land filled. Plastics are used to line landfills so that leachate is captured and groundwater is not polluted. Non-degrading plastics help stabilize the ground so that after the landfill is closed, the land can be stable enough for useful futures.

Polymers affect every day of our life. These materials have so many varied characteristics and applications that their usefulness can only be measured by our imagination. Polymers are the materials of past, present and future generations.

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1  United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States, 2005 Facts and Figures, EPA530-R-06-011, October 2006
2  American Chemistry Council, “2005 National Post-Consumer Plastics Bottle Recycling Report”

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