Industrial polymers are widely used and have many applications, but this doesn’t mean that they are simple materials. The chemists who work with them are highly qualified professionals. Nearly 65% of them have PhDs.
Believe it or not, polymers affect almost every aspect of your life. Read on to find out about nine everyday uses of industrial polymers.
What are Industrial Polymers?
Industrial or synthetic polymers are a product of the oil industry. Natural polymers such as proteins also exist. Both natural and synthetic polymers form when small molecules called monomers are polymerized creating relatively large molecules.
These large molecules have useful characteristics. They can be tough, elastic or semi-crystalline. It’s these characteristics that are so useful in industrial applications.
Polus means “many” in ancient Greek. Meros means “part”. This description refers to the many parts of the polymer molecule. These parts repeat multiple times and provide polymers with their special properties.
The well-known brands, Teflon, Kevlar, and Neoprene are industrial polymers. You may associate these brands with some common applications.
Teflon is popular for its non-stick qualities as used in pans and gears. Kevlar is famous for producing incredibly strong body armor as used in sports, the military and law enforcement. Neoprene is famously used to make divers wetsuits and bottle coolers.
The many varieties of polymers have their own specific applications.
Silicones or polysiloxanes are polymers with alternating silicon and oxygen atoms. This structure makes them stable at both high and low temperatures. They are largely inert and so do not react with water or oxygen.
Silicones can be found in many everyday applications such as adhesives and greases. They are also used in flexible cooking molds, heat resistant seals, and even surgical implants.
A group of very adaptable polymers is the polyurethanes. These polymers are the product of a reaction between isocyanate and alcohol. The result is a material that is all around your home, vehicle and in many industrial and building applications.
Foams, both rigid and flexible, are polyurethanes. They are commonly used to make bedding, upholstery, sponges, and carpet underlay. The more rigid foams are used to make floatation devices, packaging, and furniture.
When made into fibers, polyurethanes can be woven into sportswear. In this application, their strength and resistance to abrasion are especially useful. Polyurethane casting resins are used on automotive parts such as truck bed liners or applied to construction materials such as wood and concrete.
Fibers made from polypropylene are used to make the fabric used in furnishings. Non-woven fabrics made from polypropylene are used in hospitals. Diapers also use these non-woven fabrics.
A surprising use for non-woven polypropylene fabrics is in construction. Here it is used to stabilize other materials including paving and aggregates.
More familiar is the plastic form of polypropylene which is used to make plastic bottles, plastic toys and plastic furniture for outside use. Those plastic food boxes you use in the fridge to keep food fresh are also made from polypropylene.
Nylon was one of the earliest forms of synthetic material. It was famously used to make stockings.
It is now used in many clothes alongside other fibers. It provides strength, elasticity, and the capacity to take dyes well to clothing fabrics.
Because nylon is also very tolerant of high heat it is used in engines, especially in gear wheels and oil seals. Nylon is a reliable, strong material that parachutists rely on every time they jump from an aircraft.
The insulating properties of expanded polystyrene make it a useful heat-retaining building material. It’s light but rigid properties make it useful for filling packing cases.
Unexpanded polystyrene is used to make CD cases and disposable or picnic cutlery.
Polymers containing one or more sulfur atoms are called polysulfides. These polymers make very strong, crystalline plastics. They are used in electrical and electronic equipment, automotive applications.
Some polysulfides have excellent resistance to weather and oils. They are used to make seals and gaskets. They are used to bind solid rocket propellants.
You probably use products made from polyethylene every day. The plastic used to make single-use grocery bags and trash bags is polyethylene. It’s also the film used to wrap food items in the grocery store.
Cable insulation, toys, and many housewares are also made from polyethylene. Household cleaning products are packaged in a form of polyethylene as is milk and many bottle caps.
When applications need greater stiffness the industrial polymer that is often chosen is polycarbonate. It can be injection-molded, extruded, and blow-molded so it is very adaptable for different products.
The stiffness makes it ideal for making safety helmets and shields. It can also be formed to make protective windows that are shatterproof.
Even the music you listen to on compact discs comes to you, courtesy of polycarbonate. The discs are formed from polycarbonate by an injection molding process.
Polyvinylchloride, commonly known as PVC is extensively used in the plumbing industry. It is used to make pipes and guttering.
Doors, siding and window frames are commonly made from PVC. It’s an excellent building material because it is robust and has low flammability.
In a more flexible form, PVC is a perfect material for a garden hose, tiles, and plastic curtains. It can be made into furniture covering that looks like leather. Vinyl-covered furniture is tough, easy to clean and much cheaper than leather furniture.
Many Parts and Many Uses
Polymers are made up of many parts but they also have many more uses than you can imagine. The different varieties of industrial polymers have different properties. It’s these different properties that lend themselves to different applications.
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