- Plural of plastic
Plastics is the general term for a wide range of synthetic or semisynthetic polymerization products. They are composed of organic condensation or addition polymers and may contain other substances to improve performance or reduce costs. There are many natural polymers generally considered to be "plastics". Plastics can be formed into many different types of objects, or films, or fibers. Their name is derived from the malleability, or plasticity, of many of them. The "s" in "plastics" is there to distinguish between the polymer and the way a material deforms. For example, aluminum is a ductile material and can undergo "plastic" deformation when the material undergoes stress from a force and results in a strain of which it will not return. "Plastics" refers to the polymer material. The word derives from the Greek πλαστικός (plastikos), "fit for molding", from πλαστός (plastos) "molded".
OverviewPlastics can be classified in many ways, but most commonly by their polymer backbone (polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, polymethyl methacrylate, and other acrylics, silicones, polyurethanes, etc.). Other classifications include thermoplastic, thermoset, elastomer, engineering plastic, addition or condensation or polyaddition (depending on polymerization method used), and glass transition temperature or Tg.
Some plastics are partially crystalline and partially amorphous in molecular structure, giving them both a melting point (the temperature at which the attractive intermolecular forces are overcome) and one or more glass transitions (temperatures above which the extent of localized molecular flexibility is substantially increased). So-called semi-crystalline plastics include polyethylene, polypropylene, poly (vinyl chloride), polyamides (nylons), polyesters and some polyurethanes. Many plastics are completely amorphous, such as polystyrene and its copolymers, poly (methyl methacrylate), and all thermosets.
Plastics are polymers: long chains of atoms bonded to one another. Common thermoplastics range from 20,000 to 500,000 in molecular mass, while thermosets are assumed to have infinite molecular weight. These chains are made up of many repeating molecular units, known as "repeat units", derived from "monomers"; each polymer chain will have several 1000's of repeat units. The vast majority of plastics are composed of polymers of carbon and hydrogen alone or with oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine or sulfur in the backbone. (Some of commercial interest are silicon based.) The backbone is that part of the chain on the main "path" linking a large number of repeat units together. To vary the properties of plastics, both the repeat unit with different molecular groups "hanging" or "pendant" from the backbone, (usually they are "hung" as part of the monomers before linking monomers together to form the polymer chain). This customization by repeat unit's molecular structure has allowed plastics to become such an indispensable part of twenty first-century life by fine tuning the properties of the polymer.
People experimented with plastics based on natural polymers for centuries. In the nineteenth century a plastic material based on chemically modified natural polymers was discovered: Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanization of rubber (1839) and Alexander Parkes, English inventor (1813—1890) created the earliest form of plastic in 1855. He mixed pyroxylin, a partially nitrated form of cellulose (cellulose is the major component of plant cell walls), with alcohol and camphor. This produced a hard but flexible transparent material, which he called "Parkesine." The first plastic based on a synthetic polymer was made from phenol and formaldehyde, with the first viable and cheap synthesis methods invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1909, the product being known as Bakelite. Subsequently poly (vinyl chloride), polystyrene, polyethylene (polyethene), polypropylene (polypropene), polyamides (nylons), polyesters, acrylics, silicones, polyurethanes were amongst the many varieties of plastics developed and have great commercial success.
The development of plastics has come from the use of natural materials (e.g., chewing gum, shellac) to the use of chemically modified natural materials (e.g., natural rubber, nitrocellulose, collagen) and finally to completely synthetic molecules (e.g., epoxy, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene).
In 1959, Koppers Company in Pittsburgh, PA had a team that developed the expandable polystyrene (EPS) foam.
The polystyrene foam cup
On this team was Edward J. Stoves who made the first commercial foam cup. The experimental cups were made of puffed rice glued together to form a cup to show how it would feel and look. The chemistry was then developed to make the cups commercial. Today, the cup is used throughout the world in countries desiring fast food, such as the United States, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Freon was never used in the cups, as Stoves said: "We didn't know freon was bad for the ozone, but we knew it was not good for people so the cup never used freon to expand the beads." However, for many years polystyrene foam
- "was 'expanded' with CFC gases, probably because CFCs were cheap, easily available and easy to use. As concerns with ozone depletion emerged, producers of polystyrene foam in industrialized nations joined aerosol packagers in switching to safer gases (principally nitrogen) for propellant and expansion of polystyrene foam."
The foam cup can be buried, and it is as stable as concrete and brick. No plastic film is required to protect the air and underground water. If it is properly incinerated at high temperatures, the only chemicals generated are water, carbon dioxide, some volatile compounds and carbon soot EPS can be recycled to make park benches, flower pots and toys. Paper cups, which often have more oil in them than a foam cup, cannot be recycled if they are coated.
It is relatively easy to make the cups biodegradable. One has only to mix rice flour in the polystyrene. When the micro-organisms eat the rice, they also ingest the polystyrene. But there are three reasons to not make the cups biodegradable: 1. The time frame cannot be set. You don't want the cup disappearing on the grocer's shelf or when you have coffee in it; 2. The products of degradation are not food-grade approved; 3. If people know the material is biodegradable, they throw more cups carelessly away.
Photodegradable is superior but they have to be thrown into sunny places. If you throw the cups under a tree, they will not degrade. Manufacturers of the cups say, "If you can teach people to throw the cups into the sunlight, you can teach them to throw them into the trash."
Cellulose-based plastics: celluloid and rayonAll Goodyear had done with vulcanization was improve the properties of a natural polymer. The next logical step was to use a natural polymer, cellulose, as the basis for a new material.
Inventors were particularly interested in developing synthetic substitutes for those natural materials that were expensive and in short supply, since that meant a profitable market to exploit. Ivory was a particularly attractive target for a synthetic replacement.
An Englishman from Birmingham named Alexander Parkes developed a "synthetic ivory" named "pyroxlin", which he marketed under the trade name "Parkesine", and which won a bronze medal at the 1862 World's fair in London. Parkesine was made from cellulose treated with nitric acid and a solvent. The output of the process hardened into a hard, ivory-like material that could be molded when heated. However, Parkes was not able to scale up the process reliably, and products made from Parkesine quickly warped and cracked after a short period of use.
Englishmen Daniel Spill and the American John Wesley Hyatt both took up where Parkes left off. Parkes had failed for lack of a proper softener, but they independently discovered that camphor would work well. Spill launched his product as Xylonite in 1869, while Hyatt patented his "Celluloid" in 1870, naming it after cellulose. Rivalry between Spill's British Xylonite Company and Hyatt's American Celluloid Company led to an expensive decade-long court battle, with neither company being awarded rights, as ultimately Parkes was credited with the product's invention. As a result, both companies operated in parallel on both sides of the Atlantic.
Celluloid/Xylonite proved extremely versatile in its field of application, providing a cheap and attractive replacement for ivory, tortoiseshell, and bone, and traditional products such as billiard balls and combs were much easier to fabricate with plastics. Some of the items made with cellulose in the nineteenth century were beautifully designed and implemented. For example, celluloid combs made to tie up the long tresses of hair fashionable at the time are now highly-collectable jewel-like museum pieces. Such pretty trinkets were no longer only for the rich.
Hyatt was something of an industrial genius who understood what could be done with such a shapeable, or "plastic", material, and proceeded to design much of the basic industrial machinery needed to produce good-quality plastic materials in quantity. Some of Hyatt's first products were dental pieces, and sets of false teeth built around celluloid proved cheaper than existing rubber dentures. However, celluloid dentures tended to soften when hot, making tea drinking tricky, and the camphor taste tended to be difficult to suppress.
Celluloid's real breakthrough products were waterproof shirt collars, cuffs, and the false shirtfronts known as "dickies", whose unmanageable nature later became a stock joke in silent-movie comedies. They did not wilt and did not stain easily, and Hyatt sold them by trainloads. Corsets made with celluloid stays also proved popular, since perspiration did not rust the stays, as it would if they had been made of metal.
Celluloid could also be used in entirely new applications. Hyatt figured out how to fabricate the material in a strip format for movie film. By the year 1900, movie film was a major market for celluloid.
However, celluloid still tended to yellow and crack over time, and it had another more dangerous defect: it burned very easily and spectacularly, unsurprising given that mixtures of nitric acid and cellulose are also used to synthesize smokeless powder.
Ping-pong balls, one of the few products still made with celluloid, sizzle and burn if set on fire, and Hyatt liked to tell stories about celluloid billiard balls exploding when struck very hard. These stories might have had a basis in fact, since the billiard balls were often celluloid covered with paints based on another, even more flammable, nitrocellulose product known as "collodion". If the balls had been imperfectly manufactured, the paints might have acted as primer to set the rest of the ball off with a bang.
Cellulose was also used to produce cloth. While the men who developed celluloid were interested in replacing ivory, those who developed the new fibers were interested in replacing another expensive material, silk.
In 1884, a French chemist, the Comte de Chardonnay, introduced a cellulose-based fabric that became known as "Chardonnay silk". It was an attractive cloth, but like celluloid it was very flammable, a property completely unacceptable in clothing. After some ghastly accidents, Chardonnay silk was taken off the market.
In 1894, three British inventors, Charles Cross, Edward Bevan, and Clayton Beadle, patented a new "artificial silk" or "art silk" that was much safer. The three men sold the rights for the new fabric to the French Courtauld company, a major manufacturer of silk, which put it into production in 1905, using cellulose from wood pulp as the "feedstock" material.
Art silk, technically known as Cellulose Acetate, became well known under the trade name "rayon", and was produced in great quantities through the 1930s, when it was supplanted by better artificial fabrics. It still remains in production today, often in blends with other natural and artificial fibers. It is cheap and feels smooth on the skin, though it is weak when wet and creases easily. It could also be produced in a transparent sheet form known as "cellophane". Cellulose Acetate became the standard substrate for movie and camera film, instead of its very flammable predecessor.
Bakelite (phenolic)The limitations of cellulose led to the next major advance, known as "phenolic" or "phenol-formaldehyde" plastics. A chemist named Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-born American living in New York state, was searching for an insulating shellac to coat wires in electric motors and generators. Baekeland found that mixtures of phenol (C6H5OH) and formaldehyde (HCOH) formed a sticky mass when mixed together and heated, and the mass became extremely hard if allowed to cool. He continued his investigations and found that the material could be mixed with wood flour, asbestos, or slate dust to create "composite" materials with different properties. Most of these compositions were strong and fire resistant. The only problem was that the material tended to foam during synthesis, and the resulting product was of unacceptable quality.
Baekeland built pressure vessels to force out the bubbles and provide a smooth, uniform product. He publicly announced his discovery in 1912, naming it bakelite. It was originally used for electrical and mechanical parts, finally coming into widespread use in consumer goods in the 1920s. When the Bakelite patent expired in 1930, the Catalin Corporation acquired the patent and began manufacturing Catalin plastic using a different process that allowed a wider range of coloring.
Bakelite was the first true plastic. It was a purely synthetic material, not based on any material or even molecule found in nature. It was also the first thermosetting plastic. Conventional thermoplastics can be molded and then melted again, but thermoset plastics form bonds between polymers strands when cured, creating a tangled matrix that cannot be undone without destroying the plastic. Thermoset plastics are tough and temperature resistant.
Bakelite was cheap, strong, and durable. It was molded into thousands of forms, such as radios, telephones, clocks, and billiard balls. The U.S. government even considered making one-cent coins out of it when World War II caused a copper shortage.
Phenolic plastics have been largely replaced by cheaper and less brittle plastics, but they are still used in applications requiring its insulating and heat-resistant properties. For example, some electronic circuit boards are made of sheets of paper or cloth impregnated with phenolic resin.
Phenolic sheets, rods and tubes are produced in a wide variety of grades under various brand names. The most common grades of industrial phenolic are Canvas, Linen and Paper.
Polystyrene and PVC
After the First World War, improvements in chemical technology led to an explosion in new forms of plastics. Among the earliest examples in the wave of new plastics were "polystyrene" (PS) and "polyvinyl chloride" (PVC), developed by IG Farben of Germany.
Polystyrene is a rigid, brittle, inexpensive plastic that has been used to make plastic model kits and similar knickknacks. It would also be the basis for one of the most popular "foamed" plastics, under the name "styrene foam" or "Styrofoam". Foam plastics can be synthesized in an "open cell" form, in which the foam bubbles are interconnected, as in an absorbent sponge, and "closed cell", in which all the bubbles are distinct, like tiny balloons, as in gas-filled foam insulation and flotation devices. In the late 1950s "High Impact" styrene was introduced, which was not brittle. It finds much current use as the substance of toy figurines and novelties.
PVC has side chains incorporating chlorine atoms, which form strong bonds. PVC in its normal form is stiff, strong, heat and weather resistant, and is now used for making plumbing, gutters, house siding, enclosures for computers and other electronics gear. PVC can also be softened with chemical processing, and in this form it is now used for shrink-wrap, food packaging, and raingear.
NylonThe real star of the plastics industry in the 1930s was "polyamide" (PA), far better known by its trade name nylon. Nylon was the first purely synthetic fiber, introduced by Du Pont Corporation at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City.
In 1927, Du Pont had begun a secret development project designated "Fiber66", under the direction of Harvard chemist Wallace Carothers and chemistry department director Elmer Keiser Bolton. Carothers had been hired to perform pure research, and he worked to understand the new materials' molecular structure and physical properties. He took some of the first steps in the molecular design of the materials.
His work led to the discovery of synthetic nylon fiber, which was very strong but also very flexible. The first application was for bristles for toothbrushes. However, Du Pont's real target was silk, particularly silk stockings. Carothers and his team synthesized a number of different polyamides including polyamide6.6 and 4.6, as well as polyesters.
PEs are cheap, flexible, durable, and chemically resistant. LDPE is used to make films and packaging materials, while HDPE is used for containers, plumbing, and automotive fittings. While PE has low resistance to chemical attack, it was found later that a PE container could be made much more robust by exposing it to fluorine gas, which modified the surface layer of the container into the much tougher polyfluoroethylene.
Polyethylene would lead after the war to an improved material, polypropylene (PP), which was discovered in the early 1950s by Giulio Natta. It is common in modern science and technology that the growth of the general body of knowledge can lead to the same inventions in different places at about the same time, but polypropylene was an extreme case of this phenomenon, being separately invented about nine times. The ensuing litigation was not resolved until 1989.
Polypropylene managed to survive the legal process and two American chemists working for Phillips Petroleum, J. Paul Hogan and Robert Banks, are now generally credited as the "official" inventors of the material. Polypropylene is similar to its ancestor, polyethylene, and shares polyethylene's low cost, but it is much more robust. It is used in everything from plastic bottles to carpets to plastic furniture, and is very heavily used in automobiles.
Polyurethane was invented by Friedrich Bayer & Company in 1937, and would come into use after the war, in blown form for mattresses, furniture padding, and thermal insulation. It is also one of the components (in non-blown form) of the fiber spandex.
In 1939, IG Farben filed a patent for polyepoxide or epoxy. Epoxies are a class of thermoset plastic that form cross-links and cure when a catalyzing agent, or hardener, is added. After the war they would come into wide use for coatings, adhesives, and composite materials.
Composites using epoxy as a matrix include glass-reinforced plastic, where the structural element is glass fiber, and carbon-epoxy composites, in which the structural element is carbon fiber. Fiberglass is now often used to build sport boats, and carbon-epoxy composites are an increasingly important structural element in aircraft, as they are lightweight, strong, and heat resistant.
Two chemists named Rex Whinfield and James Dickson, working at a small English company with the quaint name of the "Calico Printer's Association" in Manchester, developed polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) in 1941, and it would be used for synthetic fibers in the postwar era, with names such as polyester, dacron, and terylene.
PET is less gas-permeable than other low-cost plastics and so is a popular material for making bottles for Coca-Cola and other carbonated drinks, since carbonation tends to attack other plastics, and for acidic drinks such as fruit or vegetable juices. PET is also strong and abrasion resistant, and is used for making mechanical parts, food trays, and other items that have to endure abuse. PET films are used as a base for recording tape.
One of the most impressive plastics used in the war, and a top secret, was polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), better known as Teflon, which could be deposited on metal surfaces as a scratch-proof and corrosion-resistant, low-friction protective coating. The polyfluoroethylene surface layer created by exposing a polyethylene container to fluorine gas is very similar to Teflon.
A Du Pont chemist named Roy Plunkett discovered Teflon by accident in 1938. During the war, it was used in gaseous-diffusion processes to refine uranium for the atomic bomb, as the process was highly corrosive. By the early 1960s, Teflon adhesion-resistant frying pans were in demand.
Teflon was later used to synthesize the breathable fabric Gore-Tex, which can be used to manufacture wet weather clothing that is able to "breathe". Its structure allows water vapour molecules to pass, while not permitting water as liquid to enter. Gore-Tex is also used for surgical applications such as garments and implants; Teflon strand is used to make dental floss; and Teflon mixed with fluorine compounds is used to make decoy flares dropped by aircraft to distract heat-seeking missiles.
After the war, the new plastics that had been developed entered the consumer mainstream in a flood. New manufacturing were developed, using various forming, molding, casting, and extrusion processes, to churn out plastic products in vast quantities. American consumers enthusiastically adopted the endless range of colorful, cheap, and durable plastic gimmicks being produced for new suburban home life.
One of the most visible parts of this plastics invasion was Earl Tupper's Tupperware, a complete line of sealable polyethylene food containers that Tupper cleverly promoted through a network of housewives who sold Tupperware as a means of bringing in some money. The Tupperware line of products was well thought out and highly effective, greatly reducing spoilage of foods in storage. Thin-film plastic wrap that could be purchased in rolls also helped keep food fresh.
Another prominent element in 1950s homes was Formica, a plastic laminate that was used to surface furniture and cabinetry. Formica was durable and attractive. It was particularly useful in kitchens, as it did not absorb, and could be easily cleaned of stains from food preparation, such as blood or grease. With Formica, a very attractive and well-built table could be built using low-cost and lightweight plywood with Formica covering, rather than expensive and heavy hardwoods like oak or mahogany.
Composite materials like fiberglass came into use for building boats and, in some cases, cars. Polyurethane foam was used to fill mattresses, and Styrofoam was used to line ice coolers and make float toys.
Plastics continue to be improved. General Electric introduced Lexan, a high-impact polycarbonate plastic, in the 1970s. Du Pont developed Kevlar, an extremely strong synthetic fiber that was best known for its use in ballistic rated clothing and combat helmets. Kevlar was so impressive that its manufacturer, DuPont, deemed it necessary to release an official statement denying alien involvement.
Negative health effectsSome plastics have been associated with negative health effects.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) contains numerous toxic chemicals called adipates and phthalates ("plasticizers"), which are used to soften brittle PVC into a more flexible form. PVC is commonly used to package foods and liquids, ubiquitous in children's toys and teethers, plumbing and building materials, and in everything from cosmetics to shower curtains. Traces of these chemicals can leach out of PVC when it comes into contact with food. The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has recognized the chemical used to make PVC, vinyl chloride, as a known human carcinogen. The European Union has banned the use of DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate), the most widely used plasticizer in PVC, and in children's toys.
Polystyrene (PS) is one of the toxins the USEPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) monitors in America's drinking water. Prior to the ban on the use of CFCs in extrusion of polystyrene (and general use, except in life-critical fire suppression systems; see Montreal Protocol), the production of polystyrene contributed to the depletion of the ozone layer; however, non-CFCs are currently used in the extrusion process. Some compounds leaching from polystyrene food containers interfere with hormone functions. It's a possible human carcinogen
- from biopetroleum .
Price, environment, and the futureThe biggest threat to the conventional plastics industry is most likely to be environmental concerns, including the release of toxic pollutants, greenhouse gas, litter, biodegradable and non-biodegrable landfill impact as a result of the production and disposal of petroleum and petroleum-based plastics. Of particular concern has been the recent accumulation of enormous quantities of plastic trash in ocean gyres, particularly the North Pacific Gyre, now known informally as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex.
For decades one of the great appeals of plastics has been their low price. Yet in recent years the cost of plastics has been rising dramatically. A major cause is the sharply rising cost of petroleum, the raw material that is chemically altered to form commercial plastics.
With some observers suggesting that future oil reserves are uncertain, the price of petroleum may increase further. Therefore, alternatives are being sought. Oil shale and tar oil are alternatives for plastic production but are expensive. Scientists are seeking cheaper and better alternatives to petroleum-based plastics, and many candidates are in laboratories all over the world. One promising alternative may be fructose .
Common plastics and uses; Polystyrene (PS) :Packaging foam, food containers, disposable cups, plates, cutlery, CD and cassette boxes.; Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) :Electronic equipment cases (e.g., computer monitors, printers, keyboards).; Polyester (PES) :Fibers, textiles.; Poly(vinyl chloride) (PVC) :Plumbing pipes and guttering, shower curtains, window frames, flooring.; Polycarbonate (PC) :Compact discs, eyeglasses, riot shields, security windows, traffic lights, lenses.; Polyethylene (PE) :Wide range of inexpensive uses including supermarket bags, plastic bottles.
Special-purpose plastics; Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) (trade name Teflon) :Heat-resistant, low-friction coatings, used in things like non-stick surfaces for frying pans, plumber's tape and water slides.; Polyetherimide (PEI) (Ultem) :A high temperature, chemically stable polymer that does not crystallize.; Urea-formaldehyde (UF) : one of the aminoplasts and used as multi-colorable alternative to Phenolics. Used as a wood adhesive (for plywood, chipboard, hardboard) and electrical switch housings.; Polylactic acid : a biodegradable, thermoplastic, found converted into a variety of aliphatic polyesters derived from lactic acid which in turn can be made by fermentation of various agricultural products such as corn starch, once made from diary products.
- Conductive polymer
- Corn construction
- Molding (process)
- Organic light emitting diode
- Plastic recycling
- Plastics engineering
- Plastics extrusion
- Synthetic fiber
- Self-healing plastic
- Thermosetting plastic
- Timeline of materials technology
- Substantial parts of this text originated from An Introduction To Plastics v1.0 / 1 March 2001 / greg goebel / public domain
- J. Harry Dubois Collection on the History of Plastics, ca. 1900-1975 Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
- Plastics Materials A directory of resins from 600 plastics manufacturers.
- Periodic Table of Polymers Dr Robin Kent - Tangram Technology Ltd.
- Detailed Guide To All Plastics Processes British Plastics Federation
- Plastics Historical Society
- History of plastics, Society of the Plastics Industry
- My Plastics Industry
- PVCInformation.org -- A coalition of environmental health and justice organizations, with a particular focus on PVC
- The PVC Consumer Campaign
- Greenpeace page about the Pacific Trash Vortex
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