History of Polymer and Plastics
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08-10-2010, 10:50 AM

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History of Polymer and Plastics

History of Plastics and Polymers

Plastics are polymers. What is a polymer? The most simple definition of a polymer is something made of many units. Think of a polymer as a chain. Each link of the chain is the "mer" or basic unit that is made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and/or silicon. To make the chain, many links or "mers" are hooked or polymerized together. Polymerization can be demonstrated by linking strips of construction paper together to make paper garlands or hooking together hundreds of paper clips to form chains.
Polymers have been with us since the beginning of time. Natural polymers include such things as tar and shellac, tortoise shell and horns, as well as tree saps that produce amber and latex. These polymers were processed with heat and pressure into useful articles like hair ornaments and jewelry. Natural polymers began to be chemically modified during the 1800s to produce many materials. The most famous of these were vulcanized rubber, gun cotton, and celluloid. The first semi-synthetic polymer produced was Bakelite in 1909 and was soon followed by the first synthetic fiber, rayon, which was developed in 1911.
Even with these developments, it was not until World War II that significant changes took place in the polymer industry. Prior to World War II, natural substances were generally available; therefore, synthetics that were being developed were not a necessity. Once the world went to war, our natural sources of latex, wool, silk, and other materials were cut off, making the use of synthetics critical. During this time period, we saw the use of nylon, acrylic, neoprene, SBR, polyethylene, and many more polymers take the place of natural materials that were no longer available. Since then, the polymer industry has continued to grow and has evolved into one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. and in the world.


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