What is a polymer?

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.