If you weren’t a science major in college, you may or may not have heard of polymers before. If you have heard about them, you may think of things like plastic cups and pipes as being made from polymers. But did you know polymers make up almost every single part of our world?
There are many different types of polymers, and they make up almost everything around us. From the houses we live in to our very DNA, polymers are the building blocks of our world. Read on to learn about these amazing structures and how much they affect us.
Polymers are large molecules made up of a lot of smaller units called monomers chained together. You can think of these a little like those magnetic ball toys. They can be chained together in long lines, twisted into helixes, organized into hard structures, or even broken apart.
The most common polymer you may be familiar with is contained in your own body: your DNA. DNA is made up of four monomers, adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine. These combine to form the long double-helix chain we know as DNA.
There are many polymers that occur in nature, and you’re familiar with many of them. Because of their chained structure, polymers tend to have unique physical properties that make them useful. They tend to be strong, which makes them great for a whole number of applications.
Wool, leather, and flax are all polymers; you may be surprised to learn that you’re made up largely of polymers. Starch and cellulose are also natural polymers, and their ability to add strength to materials has been prized for centuries. In fact, most of the materials we’ve built our civilization from are polymers.
There are also a lot of polymers around us every day that don’t occur naturally. Most of these synthetic polymers came about because people were trying to replicate the properties of natural polymers, especially silk and rubber. There are some semi-synthetic polymers, such as modified rubber, that use natural polymers as a base and alter them.
You know most synthetic polymers by the umbrella term “plastic.” Neoprene, nylon, Styrofoam, epoxy, silicone, and bakelite are all synthetic polymers, along with most other plastic material. In addition to being useful on their own, synthetic polymers like Fiberlock can be used to coat ropes and other materials to make them stronger.
Polypropylene is the second-most commonly produced commodity plastic after polyethylene. If you go pick up any plastic container in your home, chances are it’s made of polypropylene. It’s tough and flexible, has a high melting point, and is resistant to almost all fats and organic solvents.
One of the biggest uses of polypropylene is in plastic hinges that have to flex a lot. Polypropylene is resistant to fatigue, meaning it won’t wear out with a lot of movement and use. It’s also used in plastic chairs, buckets, trash cans, pill bottles, dishes, car batteries, and much, much more.
You probably know polystyrene by its more common nickname: Styrofoam. This polymer is not as solid as polypropylene, but its versatility makes it a useful building material. Polystyrene can be foamed, as in its Styrofoam state, or solid, when you might recognize it in things like plastic pudding cups and disposable water cups.
Styrofoam has long been valued for its cushioning ability as a packing material, but more recently its insulating properties have begun to come to the forefront. People have started making houses out of foam blocks filled with concrete. These houses are incredibly sturdy, can withstand a great deal of flooding and catastrophic weather, and are very well-insulated.
Polyvinyl chloride has a nickname, too, and you’re certainly familiar with this material: PVC. This polymer is extremely strong and can form thick, inflexible pipes. About 40 million tons of PVC are produced each year.
PVC has become a crucial building material for modern construction, especially in plumbing systems. Unlike old clay tile and cast iron pipes, tree roots can’t break into PVC drain lines. PVC pipes are light and easy to cut to size, and cementing two pieces together to create a new joint takes only a matter of seconds.
Bakelite is the original fully synthetic polymer, developed in New York in 1907. If any of your older family members have yellow, orange, or green flecked mixing bowls in their kitchens, you’ve seen Bakelite. You may also have noticed that these bowls still appear in perfect condition; Bakelite is very tough and resistant to scratches.
Because Bakelite can be molded into durable, smooth shapes, it took off as a material for everything. Buttons, jewelry, pipes, letter openers, dishes, and almost any other product you can imagine was made from Bakelite. These days it has faded from glory some as better plastics have come on the market.
Polymers make up just about every single part of our world. From our DNA to our devices, from our homes to our cars, they make up almost everything we touch. Knowing a little more about the different types of polymers may help you spot them and appreciate their importance in our lives.
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