Polymer Chemistry 101

An introduction to polymers also known as plastics

The field of polymer chemistry and the polymer industry is so broad that it’s difficult to figure out where to start. And with that breadth there is are also areas of deep nuance and specialization that make even PhD chemists scratch their heads in wonder.

This is an attempt to get the basics communicated. It’s a starting point.

You do not need a PhD. Some college will help. Previous knowledge of chemistry will help, but not required. I hope you the reader will learn more as you read. Ask questions.

Polymers are all around us

So much polymer chemistry going on in this photograph

The simple looking picture above seems a normal enough. A car. A house. A driveway. Yet these things would not be possible without modern polymer chemistry.

Common parts of a car that use polymers:

Paint — All paint is polymeric, could be acrylic, could be melamine resin, could be epoxy resin or polyurethane

Tires — All tires are made of rubber and various tackifiers

Brakes — A mishmash of different materials some of them polymeric, but all held together with a phenolic resin

Seat Cushions — Polyurethane foam

Seat Covers — Polyester or Nylon

Dashboard — Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene

Gaskets and Hoses — Could be a polyurethane elastomer or a nylon or crosslinked polyethylene

Adhesives — Epoxy Resin or Polyurethanes

The common parts of a house that use polymers:

Insulation — Polyurethane foam, stone wool, glass fiber, cellulosic/borate

Shingles — Urea Formaldehyde and Asphalt

Paint — Latex

Sheathing — Plywood or Oriented Strand Board are held together with phenolic resin or isocyanate based adhesives

Laminate Countertops — Phenolic and Melamine resin

Corian or Engineer Stone Countertops —Polyesters

Bathtubs — Unsaturated Polyesters

Carpets — Polyesters

Flooring finishes — Polyurethanes

Utensils and Containers — Polyolefins, Polyesters, and Silicones

Where do polymers come from and how do we make them?

The majority of modern polymers come from oil and requires both fractional distillation and cracking to make the requisite starting materials — also known as monomers. Figure 1 should shows the fractions of crude oil distillation and where those distillates are used.

Get familiar with this diagram if you want to work in Oil and Gas. Source here

The major fractions important for polymer chemistry are the first three or fractions that possess 1–16 carbon atoms. From these oil distillates chemists and engineers have made our current world possible. The future valuation of the polymer industry is estimated by some to be near 700 Billion globally by 2020, but that number seems to always change.

Percentage of Global Consumption of Plastics in 2012. PE and PP assume all densities, styrenics assume all co-polymers. Data is from Polyurethanes Science, Technology, Markets and Trends by Sonnenschein 2015.

The polymers from the pie chart above utilize oil and those polymers are all found in everyday life. Over 80% of the pie chart is considered commodity while about 20% is considered specialty (that’s why it’s called specialty chemicals). The highest profit margins are typically found in specialty, but the industry is currently in flux. Specialty chemicals are slowly becoming commoditized even as volumes increase.

In order to understand the polymer market, trends, and advances we first need to understand the basics, which includes familiarity of how these polymers are made, the supply chains that support them, and their applications. A highlight of starting materials and the resulting polymers for the commoditized poymers are shown below.

While this is not an exhaustive structural representation of what is currently out there it is just here as a beginning. Deeper dives into specific chemistries, applications, trends, and new routes to raw materials will be discussed in specific posts.

I just hope I’ve piqued your interest. Next time you get a water bottle, put it in a plastic grocery bag, and drive your car away from the grocery store remember that you’ve likely had contact with every single polymer or shown above in some fashion.

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Thank you for reading.