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Synthetic Polymers

The meaning of polymer


1. Polymers are large molecules made up of many smaller and identical repeating units
joined together by covalent bonds. These small molecules are called monomers. A
polymer can be made up of thousands of monomers.
Here is a monomer :
Here is a polymer :

2. Polymerisation is the chemical process by which the monomers are joined together to
form a big molecule known as a polymer.
3. A polymer is a macromolecule (a very big molecule). Hence, the relative molecular mass
of a polymer is large.
4. The properties of a polymer are different from its monomers; a polymer has a higher
density, melting point and boiling point than its monomer.

Natural polymers and synthetic polymers


1. Polymers can be divided into two types :
Naturally occuring polymers; examples are protein, carbohydrates, natural rubber,
silk, wool, DNA, cellulose and proteins.
Synthetic polymers; examples are nylon, polyethylene, polyester, plastics, Terylene
and synthetic rubber.
2. Many of the raw materials for the synthetic polymers are obtained from petroleum.
3. However, the compounds used to make polymers are not necessarily obtained directly
from petroleum deposits. Petroleum must first be refined before it can be made into
polymers. All polymers must then be manufactured through polymerisation reactions.

Polymerisation
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Synthetic Polymers
1. Polymerisation is the process of joining together the large number of monomers to form a
polymer.
2. The two most common reaction types used to make polymers are :
a) Addition polymerisation
b) Condensation polymerisation

3.

Addition polymerisation involves monomers with >C = C< bonding, where the
monomers join together to make a long chain without losing any simple molecules from it.

4.

Condensation
polymerisation involves the elimination of small molecules like water, methanol,
ammonia or hydrogen chloride during the process.
Examples of products of this process are terylene and nylon-66.

Synthetic polymers and its uses


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Synthetic Polymers
1. Synthetic polymers can be categorized into three types :
a) Plastics
b) Synthetic rubber
c) Synthetic fibre
2. The table below is a list of plastic polymers, their monomers, uses and advantages.
Plastics
Polymer
Polythene (PE),

Polypropene (PP),

Monomer
Ethene

Advantages

Plastic bags, shopping bags,


plastic containers, plastic toys,
plastic cups and plates

Light and strong

Plastic bottles, bottle crates,


plastic tables and chairs, car
battery cases and ropes

Light and strong

Water pipes, shoes, bags,


raincoats, artificial leather and
wire casing

Can be coloured,
heat resistant

Packaging materials, heat


insulators, toys, disposable
cups and plates

Light and strong

Traffic signals, lens, aeroplane


window panes

Light, strong,
translucent, stable
towards sunlight

Propene

Polyvinyl chloride
(PVC),

Vinyl chloride

Polyphenylethene
(Polystyrene)

Phenylethene

Poly(methyl
methacrylate)
(Perspex)

Uses

Methyl
methacrylate

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Synthetic Polymers
3. Synthetic rubber is an elastomer or polymer which regains its size original shape after
being pulled or pressed.
4. The table below is a list of rubber polymers, their monomers, uses and advantages.

Polymer
Neoprene

Synthetic rubber
Monomer
Chloroprene

Uses
Rubber gloves, insulate
electric wires

Styrene-butadiene (SBR)

Styrene

and

Tyres, soles of shoes,


mechanical belts

butan-1,3-diene

Poly(isoprene)
(Natural rubber)

Isoprene
Air hoses, balloons,
cushions

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Synthetic Polymers

5. Nylon and terylene are synthetic fibres which undergo the condensation polymerisation
process.
6. These fibres resemble natural fibres but are more resistant to stress and chemicals, and are
more long-lasting.
7. In both cases, water is eliminated during the polymerisation process.

Nylon

Uses : To make umbrellas, carpets, comb, curtains, nylon string and rope, socks, and
toothbrush.

Terylene

Uses : To make fishing nets, clothes (quick-dry, non-iron), cassette and video tapes.

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Synthetic Polymers

Issues of the use of synthetic polymers in everyday life


1. Synthetic polymers have been used widely to replace natural materials because of the
following advantages :
a) Strong and light
b) Cheap
c) Able to resist corrosion
d) Inert to chemical attacks
e) Easily moulded or shaped and dyed
2. The use of synthetic polymer, results in environmental pollution problems from the
disposal of synthetic polymers because :
a) Most polymers are non-biodegradeable (cannot be decomposed by bacteria or other
microorganisms).
b) Plastic items block drains and rivers, causing flash floods.
c) Plastic containers become breeding places for mosquitoes.
d) Small plastics swallowed by aquatic animals cause death.
e) The open burning of plastics gives rise to poisonous and acidic gases like carbon
monoxide, hydrogen chloride and hydrogen cyanide. These are harmful to the
environment as they cause acid rain.
f) Petroleum, the main source of raw materials for the making of synthetic polymers is a
non-renewable resource.

3. Methods to overcome these problems of polymers are :


a) Recycling polymers
- Plastics can be decomposed by heating them without oxygen at 700C. This
process is called pyrolysis. The products of this process are then recycled into new
products.
b) Inventing biodegradable polymers
- Such polymers should be mixed with substances that can be decomposed by
bacteria (to become biodegradable) or light (to become photodegradable).
c) Education and awareness
d) Replace synthetic polymers with other materials
- Recycled paper can be used to replace plastics for packaging and wrapping.

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