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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 (StyrofoamTM), polyurethane and polyethylene.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.