Applications of Polymers

Macromolecular science has had a major impact on the way we live. It is difficult to find an aspect of our lives that is not affected by polymers. Just 50 years ago, materials we now take for granted were non-existent. With further advances in the understanding of polymers, and with new applications being researched, there is no reason to believe that the revolution will stop any time soon.

This section presents some common applications of the polymer classes introduced in the section on Polymer Structure. These are by no means all of the applications, but a cross section of the ways polymers are used in industry.

Elastomers

Rubber is the most important of all elastomers. Natural rubber is a polymer whose repeating unit is isoprene. This material, obtained from the bark of the rubber tree, has been used by humans for many centuries. It was not until 1823, however, that rubber became the valuable material we know today. In that year, Charles Goodyear succeeded in "vulcanizing" natural rubber by heating it with sulfur. In this process, sulfur chain fragments attack the polymer chains and lead to cross-linking. The term vulcanization is often used now to describe the cross-linking of all elastomers.

Much of the rubber used in the United States today is a synthetic variety called styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR). Initial attempts to produce synthetic rubber revolved around isoprene because of its presence in natural rubber. Researchers eventually found success using butadiene and styrene with sodium metal as the initiator. This rubber was called Buna-S -- "Bu" from butadiene, "na" from the symbol for sodium, and "S" from styrene. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of tons of synthetic rubber were produced in government controlled factories. After the war, private industry took over and changed the name to styrene-butadiene rubber. Today, the United States consumes on the order of a million tons of SBR each year. Natural and other synthetic rubber materials are quite important.

Plastics

Americans consume approximately 60 billion pounds of plastics each year. The two main types of plastics are thermoplastics and thermosets. Thermoplastics soften on heating and harden on cooling while thermosets, on heating, flow and cross-link to form rigid material which does not soften on future heating. Thermoplastics account for the majority of commercial usage.

Among the most important and versatile of the hundreds of commercial plastics is polyethylene. Polyethylene is used in a wide variety of applications because, based on its structure, it can be produced in many different forms. The first type to be commercially exploited was called low density polyethylene (LDPE) or branched polyethylene. This polymer is characterized by a large degree of branching, forcing the molecules to be packed rather loosely forming a low density material. LDPE is soft and pliable and has applications ranging from plastic bags, containers, textiles, and electrical insulation, to coatings for packaging materials.

Another form of polyethylene differing from LDPE only in structure is high density polyethylene (HDPE) or linear polyethylene. This form demonstrates little or no branching, enabling the molecules to be tightly packed. HDPE is much more rigid than branched polyethylene and is used in applications where rigidity is important. Major uses of HDPE are plastic tubing, bottles, and bottle caps.

Other forms of this material include high and ultra-high molecular weight polyethylenes. HMW and UHMW, as they are known. These are used in applications where extremely tough and resilient materials are needed.

Fibers

Fibers represent a very important application of polymeric materials, including many examples from the categories of plastics and elastomers.

Natural fibers such as cotton, wool, and silk have been used by humans for many centuries. In 1885, artificial silk was patented and launched the modern fiber industry. Man-made fibers include materials such as nylon, polyester, rayon, and acrylic. The combination of strength, weight, and durability have made these materials very important in modern industry.

Generally speaking, fibers are at least 100 times longer than they are wide. Typical natural and artificial fibers can have axial ratios (ratio of length to diameter) of 3000 or more.

Synthetic polymers have been developed that posess desirable characteristics, such as a high softening point to allow for ironing, high tensile strength, adequate stiffness, and desirable fabric qualities. These polymers are then formed into fibers with various characteristics.

Nylon (a generic term for polyamides) was developed in the 1930's and used for parachutes in World War II. This synthetic fiber, known for its strength, elasticity, toughness, and resistance to abrasion, has commercial applications including clothing and carpeting. Nylon has special properties which distinguish it from other materials. One such property is the elasticity. Nylon is very elastic, however after elastic limit has been exceeded the material will not return to its original shape. Like other synthetic fibers, Nylon has a large electrical resistance. This is the cause for the build-up of static charges in some articles of clothing and carpets.

From textiles to bullet-proof vests, fibers have become very important in modern life. As the technology of fiber processing expands, new generations of strong and light weight materials will be produced.

Processing Polymers

Once a polymer with the right properties is produced, it must be manipulated into some useful shape or object. Various methods are used in industry to do this. Injection molding and extrusion are widely used to process plastics while spinning is the process used to produce fibers.

Injection Molding

One of the most widely used forms of plastic processing is injection molding. Basically, a plastic is heated above its glass transition temperature (enough so that it will flow) and then is forced under high pressure to fill the contents of a mold. The molten plastic in usually "squeezed" into the mold by a ram or a reciprocating screw. The plastic is allowed to cool and is then removed from the mold in its final form. The advantage of injection molding is speed; this process can be performed many times each second.

Extrusion

Extrusion is similar to injection molding except that the plastic is forced through a die rather than into a mold. However, the disadvantage of extrusion is that the objects made must have the same cross-sectional shape. Plastic tubing and hose is produced in this manner.

Spinning

The process of producing fibers is called spinning. There are three main types of spinning: melt, dry, and wet. Melt spinning is used for polymers that can be melted easily. Dry spinning involves dissolving the polymer into a solution that can be evaporated. Wet spinning is used when the solvent cannot be evaporated and must be removed by chemical means. All types of spinning use the same principle, so it is convenient to just describe just one. In melt spinning, a mass of polymer is heated until it will flow. The molten polymer is pumped to the face of a metal disk containing many small holes, called the spinneret. Tiny streams of polymer that emerge from these holes (called filaments) are wound together as they solidify, forming a long fiber. Speeds of up to 2500 feet/minute can be employed in spinning.

Following the spinning process, as noted in the section on Polymer Morphology, fibers are stretched substantially - from 3 to 8 or more times their original length to produce increased chain alignment and enhanced crystallinity in order to yield improved strength.


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