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Explore Science: Polymers

In this article, we will discuss:

“Polymers” might not be a term you use very often, or ever even, but you might be surprised to learn that you interact with them more than you think.  In this article, you’ll learn:

What are polymers?

Polymers are chemicals with many repeating units. Units in polymers are linked together to form networks; for a visual, picture a chain, maybe like the construction paper ones often used to count down the days until Christmas.  The word “polymer” is Greek in nature and means “many parts.”  Just like a chain can have simple connections, polymers can be made from just an atom or a few; or, they might be complicated and contain dozens of atoms.

Polymers are chemicals with many repeating units.

Natural and manufactured polymers

The polymers that exist in nature serve us in diverse ways. Did you know silk and hair are considered natural polymers? Cellulose found in wood is another natural polymer used as a raw material in the manufacture of rubber. Plastics are also a natural polymer.  Polymers can be found everywhere.

Manufactured polymers do not melt once they are forced and are called thermoset polymers.

They can also be manufactured.  Manufactured polymers do not melt once they are forced and are called thermoset polymers. You see these types of polymers in adhesives/glues that have to withstand heat like Epoxy. Alternatively, polymers that can melt are called linear or thermoplastic polymers. Examples are plastic bottles or cups.

Polymers can be found everywhere.

The way a polymer’s molecules are patterned has a significant impact on what we can make with it. Linear Polymers look very much like how spaghetti looks on a plate – loose and in no particular order. They tend to be transparent, which is a beneficial quality for making headlights, contact lenses and food wrap.  You can probably already guess that the polymers that are not transparent have a more defined arrangement with distinct patterns.

Alternatively, polymers that can melt are called linear or thermoplastic polymers.

Fundamental characteristics of polymers

Here are some fundamental characteristics of polymers that make them widely used in many different applications:

  1. Most manufactured polymers can be heated and re-formed repeatedly. This quality makes plastics, for example, easy to recycle.
  2. Polymers can be very resistant to chemicals. If they weren’t, all the cleaning fluids in your home packaged in plastic would very quickly degrade.
  3. They are great insulators. Consider the cords and electrical outlets and wiring around your house all covered in polymeric materials. In your kitchen, your pot handles, foam core of your refrigerator and freezer, coolers, and microwave cookware are all resistant to heat and to cold and make life much more comfortable for us all. 
  4. Polymers can be processed in different ways and take on many different colors. They can be stretched to hold their shape, as in with bottles or styrofoam. 

The scientist who gets to work with polymers is called a chemist, an expert in a field of science called chemistry. Chemists get to mix a lot of different chemicals to get the most optimal results for creating things that are very useful for our everyday life.  Thanks to chemists, we have toothpaste, shampoo, beauty products, medicine, legos, and many of the other excellent applications mentioned prior.     

The scientist who gets to work with polymers is called a chemist, an expert in a field of science called chemistry.

Perhaps the most common polymer young scientists like you have experienced is slime! Now that you understand polymers, dive into our ultimate guide to making slime to try some fun texture variations like fluffy or cloud slime, or come up with your own!

Key Words: polymer, plastic, bond, chain, chemistry, thermoplastic, degrade, resistant, molecule, insulators

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