can fulfil.

Plastics play an increasingly important role in our daily lives, helping save lives in medical applications and protecting our families in packaging and safety applications.

The use of plastics is increasing all the time, as they continue to replace other traditional materials. There are also new roles which only plastics The car is a good example of how plastics are being used extensively. Over the last 20 years, the use of plastics in cars has increased by 114 per cent. Estimates suggest that without plastics, today’s cars would be at least 200kg heavier. Weight savings achieved through the use of plastics have enabled parts, such as the chassis and drive shaft, to become lighter. It is estimated that over the average life-span of a car of 150 000km, this lightweighting has contributed to a reduction in fuel consumption of around 750 litres. In turn, this reduces oil consumption by approximately 1 million tonnes and CO2 by many thousands of tonnes per annum. But what are plastics? Why are they so useful and so widespread? Why do they behave as they do? What is their chemical structure? Many materials we use every day are made of polymers. These are large, long molecules constructed of smaller, shorter molecules called monomers. Polymers can be natural or synthetic. Natural polymers are common in animals and plants. Much living tissue is based on polymers – for example, proteins in animals and carbohydrates in plants. A lot of our food is based on polymers – for example, fibre, grain and meat. Plants and animals also produce nonliving materials based on polymers.
This diagram shows the structure of a monomer and a polymer.

1 Think of at least three objects which, a few
years ago, would have been made of other materials and which are now commonly made of plastics.

2 For each object you listed, provide the advantages of the plastic over the other material. Give reasons why you believe plastics are now used.

1 This picture shows a typical modern car. Which parts are made of plastics materials? What advantages do you think plastics have to offer? Think of: safety
economy style colour cost

2 It is estimated that a 1000kg car, containing 100kg of plastics, would use 4% less fuel than a car made of more traditional materials. If a car uses 2000 litres of fuel each year, costing 70 cents per litre, how much money is saved through the use of plastics?



Polycarbonates were added in the 1950’s. boxes. although their use grew slowly. and vinyl were produced. plastics have become indispensable. acrylic polymers. and others into textile fibres. For example. Whether a plastic is a solid material or whether it is a thread-like fibre depends only on how it has been produced. Innovation continued throughout the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. more than 700 types of plastic are produced which fall into 18 main polymer families. The1970’s saw the arrival of the ‘third generation’. Cellulose fibres in the form of cotton wool were treated with nitric acid to form cellulose nitrate (‘Celluloid’). Plastic products were first made in 1862 from plant materials. depending on how they are processed. From now on. Some polymers are turned into a solid plastic material. performance plastics which built on previous developments. Polystyrene. which was used to make objects such as ornaments. This is processed in an oil refinery to produce basic chemicals known as monomers. silicones. polyesters. Today. a new generation of metallocene catalysts allow much tougher and more transparent polyethylene films to be made. early radios and even jewellery. to the sports equipment we use and the advanced medical technology employed to keep us fit and healthy. ACTIVITY 4 80 1 Describe the shape of this graph. This provided the ‘Bakelite’ plastics. while using even less raw materials. collars and film for movies. high-tech.manufacture of other plastics materials ACTIVITY 3 1 Look at these pictures of objects made from synthetic polymers. with new polymers being created to meet specific design challenges. The production and polyacetals. of plastics The history Today. and entered production in the late 1930’s. Readily available. It was produced as long filaments which could be spun and woven or knit. From the packaged products we purchase. polyurethane. The monomers are then turned into polymers. cuffs. the word plastics will be used to describe all such materials. PTFE. Polypropylene and high density polyethelene (HDPE) were added in the 1960’s. vinyl. the transport we use and the buildings we live and work in. Some can be turned into either.ca/teachers .plastics. used for electrical insulation and the cases for cameras. Try to decide whether the polymer is a solid plastic material or a fibre. Nylon was discovered in 1928. Synthetic polymers are made mainly from petroleum. – low density polyethylene. The manufacturing of plastics from chemicals produced from petroleum began in the 1930’s. it is clear that plastics are now an integral part of our lives. epoxy resins– grew during the 1940’s. versatile and economic to manufacture. These are usually produced as fibres and then have to be processed to produce materials such as threads and fabrics. plastics are used to produce both hi-tech and everyday objects. 2 Why do you think the graph changes shape so much during the 1950’s? 3 What happened in the early 1970’s to make the graph change direction so sharply? 4 Extend the graph to the year 2010. knife handles. These included new polyamides and In 1909 a new source of raw material was found – coal tar. What does this suggest the level of production will be? The growth in the production of plastics across the world (tonnes m) 70 60 50 40 30 20 10 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 http://www.

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