A polymer is a large molecule
A molecule is an electrically neutral group of at least two atoms held together by covalent chemical bonds. Molecules are distinguished from ions by their electrical charge...

A macromolecule is a very large molecule commonly created by some form of polymerization. In biochemistry, the term is applied to the four conventional biopolymers , as well as non-polymeric molecules with large molecular mass such as macrocycles...

) composed of repeating structural unit
Structural unit
In polymer chemistry, a structural unit is a building block of a polymer chain. It is the result of a monomer which has been polymerized into a long chain....

s. These subunits are typically connected by covalent chemical bond
Chemical bond
A chemical bond is an attraction between atoms that allows the formation of chemical substances that contain two or more atoms. The bond is caused by the electromagnetic force attraction between opposite charges, either between electrons and nuclei, or as the result of a dipole attraction...

s. Although the term polymer is sometimes taken to refer to plastic
A plastic material is any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic solids used in the manufacture of industrial products. Plastics are typically polymers of high molecular mass, and may contain other substances to improve performance and/or reduce production costs...

s, it actually encompasses a large class comprising both natural and synthetic materials with a wide variety of properties.

Because of the extraordinary range of properties of polymeric materials, they play an essential and ubiquitous role in everyday life.
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A polymer is a large molecule
A molecule is an electrically neutral group of at least two atoms held together by covalent chemical bonds. Molecules are distinguished from ions by their electrical charge...

A macromolecule is a very large molecule commonly created by some form of polymerization. In biochemistry, the term is applied to the four conventional biopolymers , as well as non-polymeric molecules with large molecular mass such as macrocycles...

) composed of repeating structural unit
Structural unit
In polymer chemistry, a structural unit is a building block of a polymer chain. It is the result of a monomer which has been polymerized into a long chain....

s. These subunits are typically connected by covalent chemical bond
Chemical bond
A chemical bond is an attraction between atoms that allows the formation of chemical substances that contain two or more atoms. The bond is caused by the electromagnetic force attraction between opposite charges, either between electrons and nuclei, or as the result of a dipole attraction...

s. Although the term polymer is sometimes taken to refer to plastic
A plastic material is any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic solids used in the manufacture of industrial products. Plastics are typically polymers of high molecular mass, and may contain other substances to improve performance and/or reduce production costs...

s, it actually encompasses a large class comprising both natural and synthetic materials with a wide variety of properties.

Because of the extraordinary range of properties of polymeric materials, they play an essential and ubiquitous role in everyday life. This role ranges from familiar synthetic plastics and elastomer
An elastomer is a polymer with the property of viscoelasticity , generally having notably low Young's modulus and high yield strain compared with other materials. The term, which is derived from elastic polymer, is often used interchangeably with the term rubber, although the latter is preferred...

s to natural biopolymers such as nucleic acids and protein
Proteins are biochemical compounds consisting of one or more polypeptides typically folded into a globular or fibrous form, facilitating a biological function. A polypeptide is a single linear polymer chain of amino acids bonded together by peptide bonds between the carboxyl and amino groups of...

s that are essential for life.

Natural polymeric materials such as shellac
Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. It is processed and sold as dry flakes , which are dissolved in ethyl alcohol to make liquid shellac, which is used as a brush-on colorant, food glaze and wood finish...

, amber
Amber is fossilized tree resin , which has been appreciated for its color and natural beauty since Neolithic times. Amber is used as an ingredient in perfumes, as a healing agent in folk medicine, and as jewelry. There are five classes of amber, defined on the basis of their chemical constituents...

, and natural rubber
Natural rubber, also called India rubber or caoutchouc, is an elastomer that was originally derived from latex, a milky colloid produced by some plants. The plants would be ‘tapped’, that is, an incision made into the bark of the tree and the sticky, milk colored latex sap collected and refined...

 have been used for centuries. A variety of other natural polymers exist, such as cellulose
Cellulose is an organic compound with the formula , a polysaccharide consisting of a linear chain of several hundred to over ten thousand β linked D-glucose units....

, which is the main constituent of wood and paper. The list of synthetic polymers includes synthetic rubber
Synthetic rubber
Synthetic rubber is is any type of artificial elastomer, invariably a polymer. An elastomer is a material with the mechanical property that it can undergo much more elastic deformation under stress than most materials and still return to its previous size without permanent deformation...

, Bakelite, neoprene
Neoprene or polychloroprene is a family of synthetic rubbers that are produced by polymerization of chloroprene. Neoprene in general has good chemical stability, and maintains flexibility over a wide temperature range...

, nylon
Nylon is a generic designation for a family of synthetic polymers known generically as polyamides, first produced on February 28, 1935, by Wallace Carothers at DuPont's research facility at the DuPont Experimental Station...

Polyvinyl chloride is a plastic.PVC may also refer to:*Param Vir Chakra, India's highest military honor*Peripheral venous catheter, a small, flexible tube placed into a peripheral vein in order to administer medication or fluids...

, polystyrene
Polystyrene ) also known as Thermocole, abbreviated following ISO Standard PS, is an aromatic polymer made from the monomer styrene, a liquid hydrocarbon that is manufactured from petroleum by the chemical industry...

, polyethylene
Polyethylene or polythene is the most widely used plastic, with an annual production of approximately 80 million metric tons...

, polypropylene
Polypropylene , also known as polypropene, is a thermoplastic polymer used in a wide variety of applications including packaging, textiles , stationery, plastic parts and reusable containers of various types, laboratory equipment, loudspeakers, automotive components, and polymer banknotes...

, polyacrylonitrile
Polyacrylonitrile is a synthetic, semicrystalline organic polymer resin, with the linear formula n. Though it is thermoplastic, it does not melt under normal conditions. It degrades before melting. It melts above 300 degrees Celsius only if the heating rates are 50 degrees per minute or above...

Polyvinyl butyral
Polyvinyl butyral is a resin usually used for applications that require strong binding, optical clarity, adhesion to many surfaces, toughness and flexibility. It is prepared from polyvinyl alcohol by reaction with butyraldehyde. The major application is laminated safety glass for automobile...

, silicone
Silicones are inert, synthetic compounds with a variety of forms and uses. Typically heat-resistant and rubber-like, they are used in sealants, adhesives, lubricants, medical applications , cookware, and insulation....

, and many more.

Most commonly, the continuously linked backbone of a polymer used for the preparation of plastics consists mainly of carbon
Carbon is the chemical element with symbol C and atomic number 6. As a member of group 14 on the periodic table, it is nonmetallic and tetravalent—making four electrons available to form covalent chemical bonds...

 atoms. A simple example is polyethylene, whose repeating unit is based on ethylene
Ethylene is a gaseous organic compound with the formula . It is the simplest alkene . Because it contains a carbon-carbon double bond, ethylene is classified as an unsaturated hydrocarbon. Ethylene is widely used in industry and is also a plant hormone...

A monomer is an atom or a small molecule that may bind chemically to other monomers to form a polymer; the term "monomeric protein" may also be used to describe one of the proteins making up a multiprotein complex...

. However, other structures do exist; for example, elements such as silicon
Silicon is a chemical element with the symbol Si and atomic number 14. A tetravalent metalloid, it is less reactive than its chemical analog carbon, the nonmetal directly above it in the periodic table, but more reactive than germanium, the metalloid directly below it in the table...

 form familiar materials such as silicones, examples being Silly Putty
Silly Putty
Silly Putty , is the Crayola-owned trademark name for a class of silicone polymers. It is marketed today as a toy for children, but was originally created by accident during research into potential rubber substitutes for use by the United States in World War II...

 and waterproof plumbing sealant. Oxygen is also commonly present in polymer backbones, such as those of polyethylene glycol
Polyethylene glycol
Polyethylene glycol is a polyether compound with many applications from industrial manufacturing to medicine. It has also been known as polyethylene oxide or polyoxyethylene , depending on its molecular weight, and under the tradename Carbowax.-Available forms:PEG, PEO, or POE refers to an...

, polysaccharide
Polysaccharides are long carbohydrate molecules, of repeated monomer units joined together by glycosidic bonds. They range in structure from linear to highly branched. Polysaccharides are often quite heterogeneous, containing slight modifications of the repeating unit. Depending on the structure,...

s (in glycosidic bond
Glycosidic bond
In chemistry, a glycosidic bond is a type of covalent bond that joins a carbohydrate molecule to another group, which may or may not be another carbohydrate....

s), and DNA
Deoxyribonucleic acid is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms . The DNA segments that carry this genetic information are called genes, but other DNA sequences have structural purposes, or are involved in...

 (in phosphodiester bond
Phosphodiester bond
A phosphodiester bond is a group of strong covalent bonds between a phosphate group and two 5-carbon ring carbohydrates over two ester bonds. Phosphodiester bonds are central to all known life, as they make up the backbone of each helical strand of DNA...


Polymers are studied in the fields of polymer chemistry
Polymer chemistry
Polymer chemistry or macromolecular chemistry is a multidisciplinary science that deals with the chemical synthesis and chemical properties of polymers or macromolecules. According to IUPAC recommendations, macromolecules refer to the individual molecular chains and are the domain of chemistry...

, polymer physics
Polymer physics
Polymer physics is the field of physics that studies polymers, their fluctuations, mechanical properties, as well as the kinetics of reactions involving degradation and polymerisation of polymers and monomers respectively....

, and polymer science
Polymer science
Polymer science or macromolecular science is the subfield of materials science concerned with polymers, primarily synthetic polymers such as plastics...



The word polymer is derived from the Greek words πολύ- - poly- meaning "many"; and μέρος - meros meaning "part". The term was coined in 1833 by Jöns Jacob Berzelius, although his definition of a polymer was quite different from the modern definition.

Historical development

From 1811 Henri Braconnot
Henri Braconnot
Henri Braconnot was a French chemist and pharmacist.He was born in Commercy, his father being a counsel at the local parliament...

 did pioneering work in derivative cellulose compounds, perhaps the earliest important work in polymer science. The development of vulcanization
Vulcanization or vulcanisation is a chemical process for converting rubber or related polymers into more durable materials via the addition of sulfur or other equivalent "curatives." These additives modify the polymer by forming crosslinks between individual polymer chains. Vulcanized material is...

 later in the nineteenth century improved the durability of the natural polymer rubber, signifying the first popularized semi-synthetic polymer. In 1907 Leo Baekeland
Leo Baekeland
Leo Hendrik Baekeland was a Belgian chemist who invented Velox photographic paper and Bakelite , an inexpensive, nonflammable, versatile, and popular plastic, which marks the beginning of the modern plastics industry.-Career:Leo Baekeland was born in Sint-Martens-Latem near Ghent, Belgium,...

 created the first completely synthetic polymer, Bakelite, by reacting phenol and formaldehyde at precisely controlled temperature and pressure. Bakelite was then publicly introduced in 1909.

Despite significant advances in synthesis and characterization of polymers, a correct understanding of polymer molecular structure did not emerge until the 1920s. Before then, scientists believed that polymers were clusters of small molecules (called colloid
A colloid is a substance microscopically dispersed evenly throughout another substance.A colloidal system consists of two separate phases: a dispersed phase and a continuous phase . A colloidal system may be solid, liquid, or gaseous.Many familiar substances are colloids, as shown in the chart below...

s), without definite molecular weights, held together by an unknown force, a concept known as association theory
Association theory
Association theory is a discredited theory first advanced by chemist Thomas Graham in 1861 to describe the molecular structure of substances such as cellulose and starch, now understood to be polymers. Association theory postulates that such materials are composed of a collection of smaller...

. In 1922 Hermann Staudinger
Hermann Staudinger
- External links :* Staudinger's * Staudinger's Nobel Lecture *....

 proposed that polymers consisted of long chains of atoms held together by covalent bonds, an idea which did not gain wide acceptance for over a decade and for which Staudinger was ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize
Nobel Prize
The Nobel Prizes are annual international awards bestowed by Scandinavian committees in recognition of cultural and scientific advances. The will of the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, established the prizes in 1895...

. Work by Wallace Carothers
Wallace Carothers
Wallace Hume Carothers was an American chemist, inventor and the leader of organic chemistry at DuPont, credited with the invention of nylon....

 in the 1920s also demonstrated that polymers could be synthesized rationally from their constituent monomers. An important contribution to synthetic polymer science was made by the Italian chemist Giulio Natta
Giulio Natta
Giulio Natta was an Italian chemist and Nobel laureate. He won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963 with Karl Ziegler for work on high polymers.-Early years:...

 and the German chemist Karl Ziegler
Karl Ziegler
Karl Waldemar Ziegler was a German chemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963, with Giulio Natta, for work on polymers. The Nobel Committee recognized his "excellent work on organometallic compounds [which]...led to new polymerization reactions and ... paved the way for new and highly...

, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963 for the development of the Ziegler-Natta catalyst
Ziegler-Natta catalyst
A Ziegler–Natta catalyst is a catalyst used in the synthesis of polymers of 1-alkenes . Three types of Ziegler–Natta catalysts are currently employed:* Solid and supported catalysts based on titanium compounds...

. Further recognition of the importance of polymers came with the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1974 to Paul Flory
Paul Flory
Paul John Flory was an American chemist and Nobel laureate who was known for his prodigious volume of work in the field of polymers, or macromolecules...

, whose extensive work on polymers included the kinetics
Chemical kinetics
Chemical kinetics, also known as reaction kinetics, is the study of rates of chemical processes. Chemical kinetics includes investigations of how different experimental conditions can influence the speed of a chemical reaction and yield information about the reaction's mechanism and transition...

 of step-growth polymerization
Step-growth polymerization
Step-growth polymerization refers to a type of polymerization mechanism in which bi-functional or multifunctional monomers react to form first dimers, then trimers, longer oligomers and eventually long chain polymers. Many naturally occurring and some synthetic polymers are produced by step-growth...

 and of addition polymerization
Addition polymerization
Chain growth polymerization is a polymerization technique where unsaturated monomer molecules add on to a growing polymer chain one at a time...

, chain transfer
Chain transfer
Chain transfer is a polymerization reaction by which the activity of a growing polymer chain is transferred to another molecule.Chain transfer reactions reduce the average molecular weight of the final polymer...

, excluded volume
Excluded volume
The concept of excluded volume was introduced by Werner Kuhn in 1934 and applied to polymer molecules shortly thereafter by Paul Flory.- In liquid state theory :...

, the Flory-Huggins solution theory
Flory-Huggins solution theory
Flory-Huggins solution theory is a mathematical model of the thermodynamics of polymer solutions which takes account of the great dissimilarity in molecular sizes in adapting the usual expression for the entropy of mixing. The result is an equation for the Gibbs free energy change \Delta G_m for...

, and the Flory convention
Flory convention
The Flory convention for defining the variables involved on modeling the position vectors of atoms in macromolecules it is often necessary to convert from Cartesian coordinates to generalized coordinates...


Synthetic polymer materials such as nylon, polyethylene, Teflon
Polytetrafluoroethylene is a synthetic fluoropolymer of tetrafluoroethylene that finds numerous applications. PTFE is most well known by the DuPont brand name Teflon....

, and silicone have formed the basis for a burgeoning polymer industry. These years have also shown significant developments in rational polymer synthesis. Most commercially important polymers today are entirely synthetic and produced in high volume on appropriately scaled organic synthetic techniques. Synthetic polymers today find application in nearly every industry and area of life. Polymers are widely used as adhesives and lubricants, as well as structural components for products ranging from children's toys to aircraft. They have been employed in a variety of biomedical applications ranging from implantable devices
Implant (medicine)
An implant is a medical device manufactured to replace a missing biological structure, support a damaged biological structure, or enhance an existing biological structure. Medical implants are man-made devices, in contrast to a transplant, which is a transplanted biomedical tissue...

 to controlled drug delivery
Drug delivery
Drug delivery is the method or process of administering a pharmaceutical compound to achieve a therapeutic effect in humans or animals. Drug delivery technologies modify drug release profile, absorption, distribution and elimination for the benefit of improving product efficacy and safety, as well...

. Polymers such as poly(methyl methacrylate) find application as photoresist
A photoresist is a light-sensitive material used in several industrial processes, such as photolithography and photoengraving to form a patterned coating on a surface.-Tone:Photoresists are classified into two groups: positive resists and negative resists....

 materials used in semiconductor
A semiconductor is a material with electrical conductivity due to electron flow intermediate in magnitude between that of a conductor and an insulator. This means a conductivity roughly in the range of 103 to 10−8 siemens per centimeter...

 manufacturing and low-k
In semiconductor manufacturing, a low-κ dielectric is a material with a small dielectric constant relative to silicon dioxide. Although the proper symbol for the dielectric constant is the Greek letter κ , in conversation such materials are referred to as being "low-k" rather than "low-κ"...

 dielectrics for use in high-performance microprocessors and computer screens. Recently, polymers have also been employed as flexible substrates in the development of organic light-emitting diode
Organic light-emitting diode
An OLED is a light-emitting diode in which the emissive electroluminescent layer is a film of organic compounds which emit light in response to an electric current. This layer of organic semiconductor material is situated between two electrodes...

s for electronic display.

Polymer synthesis

Polymerization is the process of combining many small molecules known as monomers into a covalently bonded chain. During the polymerization process, some chemical groups may be lost from each monomer. This is the case, for example, in the polymerization of PET polyester
Polyethylene terephthalate
Polyethylene terephthalate , commonly abbreviated PET, PETE, or the obsolete PETP or PET-P, is a thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family and is used in synthetic fibers; beverage, food and other liquid containers; thermoforming applications; and engineering resins often in combination...

. The monomers are terephthalic acid
Terephthalic acid
Terephthalic acid is the organic compound with formula C6H42. This colourless solid is a commodity chemical, used principally as a precursor to the polyester PET, used to make clothing and plastic bottles. Several billion kilograms are produced annually...

 (HOOC-C6H4-COOH) and ethylene glycol
Ethylene glycol
Ethylene glycol is an organic compound widely used as an automotive antifreeze and a precursor to polymers. In its pure form, it is an odorless, colorless, syrupy, sweet-tasting liquid...

 (HO-CH2-CH2-OH) but the repeating unit is -OC-C6H4-COO-CH2-CH2-O-, which corresponds to the combination of the two monomers with the loss of two water molecules. The distinct piece of each monomer that is incorporated into the polymer is known as a repeat unit
Repeat unit
An essential concept which defines polymer structure, the repeat unit or repeating unit is a part of a polymer chain whose repetition would produce the complete polymer by linking the repeat units together successively along the chain, like the beads of a necklace.A repeat unit is sometimes called...

 or monomer residue.

Laboratory synthesis

Laboratory synthetic methods are generally divided into two categories, step-growth polymerization and chain-growth polymerization
Addition polymerization
Chain growth polymerization is a polymerization technique where unsaturated monomer molecules add on to a growing polymer chain one at a time...

. The essential difference between the two is that in chain growth polymerization, monomers are added to the chain one at a time only, whereas in step-growth polymerization chains of monomers may combine with one another directly. However, some newer methods such as plasma polymerization
Plasma polymerization
Plasma polymerization uses plasma sources to generate a gas discharge that provides energy to activate or fragment gaseous or liquid monomer, often containing a vinyl group, in order to initiate polymerization. Polymers formed from this technique are generally highly branched and highly...

 do not fit neatly into either category. Synthetic polymerization reactions may be carried out with or without a catalyst. Laboratory synthesis of biopolymers, especially of proteins
Peptide synthesis
In organic chemistry, peptide synthesis is the production of peptides, which are organic compounds in which multiple amino acids are linked via amide bonds which are also known as peptide bonds...

, is an area of intensive research.

Biological synthesis

There are three main classes of biopolymers: polysaccharides, polypeptides, and polynucleotide
A polynucleotide molecule is a biopolymer composed of 13 or more nucleotide monomers covalently bonded in a chain. DNA and RNA are examples of polynucleotides with distinct biological function. The prefix poly comes from the ancient Greek πολυς...

In living cells, they may be synthesized by enzyme-mediated processes, such as the formation of DNA catalyzed by DNA polymerase
DNA polymerase
A DNA polymerase is an enzyme that helps catalyze in the polymerization of deoxyribonucleotides into a DNA strand. DNA polymerases are best known for their feedback role in DNA replication, in which the polymerase "reads" an intact DNA strand as a template and uses it to synthesize the new strand....

. The synthesis of proteins
Protein biosynthesis
Protein biosynthesis is the process in which cells build or manufacture proteins. The term is sometimes used to refer only to protein translation but more often it refers to a multi-step process, beginning with amino acid synthesis and transcription of nuclear DNA into messenger RNA, which is then...

 involves multiple enzyme-mediated processes to transcribe
Transcription (genetics)
Transcription is the process of creating a complementary RNA copy of a sequence of DNA. Both RNA and DNA are nucleic acids, which use base pairs of nucleotides as a complementary language that can be converted back and forth from DNA to RNA by the action of the correct enzymes...

 genetic information from the DNA to RNA and subsequently translate that information to synthesize the specified protein from amino acid
Amino acid
Amino acids are molecules containing an amine group, a carboxylic acid group and a side-chain that varies between different amino acids. The key elements of an amino acid are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen...

s. The protein may be modified further
Posttranslational modification
Posttranslational modification is the chemical modification of a protein after its translation. It is one of the later steps in protein biosynthesis, and thus gene expression, for many proteins....

 following translation in order to provide appropriate structure and functioning.

Modification of natural polymers

Many commercially important polymers are synthesized by chemical modification of naturally occurring polymers. Prominent examples include the reaction of nitric acid and cellulose to form nitrocellulose
Nitrocellulose is a highly flammable compound formed by nitrating cellulose through exposure to nitric acid or another powerful nitrating agent. When used as a propellant or low-order explosive, it is also known as guncotton...

 and the formation of vulcanized rubber by heating natural rubber in the presence of sulfur
Sulfur or sulphur is the chemical element with atomic number 16. In the periodic table it is represented by the symbol S. It is an abundant, multivalent non-metal. Under normal conditions, sulfur atoms form cyclic octatomic molecules with chemical formula S8. Elemental sulfur is a bright yellow...

Ways in which polymers can be modified include oxidation, cross-link
Cross-links are bonds that link one polymer chain to another. They can be covalent bonds or ionic bonds. "Polymer chains" can refer to synthetic polymers or natural polymers . When the term "cross-linking" is used in the synthetic polymer science field, it usually refers to the use of...

ing and end-capping.

Polymer properties

Polymer properties are broadly divided into several classes based on the scale at which the property is defined as well as upon its physical basis. The most basic property of a polymer is the identity of its constituent monomers. A second set of properties, known as microstructure, essentially describe the arrangement of these monomers within the polymer at the scale of a single chain. These basic structural properties play a major role in determining bulk physical properties of the polymer, which describe how the polymer behaves as a continuous macroscopic material. Chemical properties, at the nano-scale, describe how the chains interact through various physical forces. At the macro-scale, they describe how the bulk polymer interacts with other chemicals and solvents.

Monomers and repeat units

The identity of the monomer residues (repeat units) comprising a polymer is its first and most important attribute. Polymer nomenclature is generally based upon the type of monomer residues comprising the polymer. Polymers that contain only a single type of repeat unit are known as homopolymers, while polymers containing a mixture of repeat units are known as copolymers. Poly(styrene), for example, is composed only of styrene monomer residues, and is therefore classified as a homopolymer. Ethylene-vinyl acetate
Ethylene-vinyl acetate
Ethylene vinyl acetate is the copolymer of ethylene and vinyl acetate. The weight percent vinyl acetate usually varies from 10 to 40%, with the remainder being ethylene....

, on the other hand, contains more than one variety of repeat unit and is thus a copolymer. Some biological polymers are composed of a variety of different but structurally related monomer residues; for example, polynucleotides such as DNA are composed of a variety of nucleotide
Nucleotides are molecules that, when joined together, make up the structural units of RNA and DNA. In addition, nucleotides participate in cellular signaling , and are incorporated into important cofactors of enzymatic reactions...


A polymer molecule containing ionizable subunits is known as a polyelectrolyte
Polyelectrolytes are polymers whose repeating units bear an electrolyte group. These groups will dissociate in aqueous solutions , making the polymers charged. Polyelectrolyte properties are thus similar to both electrolytes and polymers , and are sometimes called polysalts. Like salts, their...

 or ionomer
An ionomer is a polymer that comprises repeat units of both electrically neutral repeating units and a fraction of ionized units...



The microstructure of a polymer (sometimes called configuration) relates to the physical arrangement of monomer residues along the backbone of the chain. These are the elements of polymer structure that require the breaking of a covalent bond in order to change. Structure has a strong influence on the other properties of a polymer. For example, two samples of natural rubber may exhibit different durability, even though their molecules comprise the same monomers.

Polymer architecture

An important microstructural feature determining polymer properties is the polymer architecture. The simplest polymer architecture is a linear chain: a single backbone with no branches. A related unbranching architecture is a ring polymer. A branched polymer
Branching (chemistry)
In polymer chemistry, branching occurs by the replacement of a substituent, e.g., a hydrogen atom, on a monomer subunit, by another covalently bonded chain of that polymer; or, in the case of a graft copolymer, by a chain of another type...

 molecule is composed of a main chain with one or more substituent side chains or branches. Special types of branched polymers include star polymers, comb polymers, brush polymers, dendronized polymers, ladders, and dendrimers.

Branching of polymer chains affects the ability of chains to slide past one another by altering intermolecular forces, in turn affecting bulk physical polymer properties. Long chain branches may increase polymer strength, toughness, and the glass transition temperature (Tg) due to an increase in the number of entanglements per chain. The effect of such long-chain branches on the size of the polymer in solution is characterized by the branching index. Random length and atactic short chains, on the other hand, may reduce polymer strength due to disruption of organization and may likewise reduce the crystallinity of the polymer.

A good example of this effect is related to the range of physical attributes of polyethylene. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) has a very low degree of branching, is quite stiff, and is used in applications such as milk jugs. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), on the other hand, has significant numbers of both long and short branches, is quite flexible, and is used in applications such as plastic films.

Dendrimers are a special case of polymer where every monomer unit is branched. This tends to reduce intermolecular chain entanglement and crystallization. Alternatively, dendritic polymers are not perfectly branched but share similar properties to dendrimers due to their high degree of branching.

The architecture of the polymer is often physically determined by the functionality of the monomers from which it is formed. This property of a monomer is defined as the number of reaction sites at which may form chemical covalent bonds. The basic functionality required for forming even a linear chain is two bonding sites. Higher functionality yields branched or even crosslinked or networked polymer chains.

An effect related to branching is chemical crosslinking - the formation of covalent bonds between chains. Crosslinking tends to increase Tg and increase strength and toughness. Among other applications, this process is used to strengthen rubbers in a process known as vulcanization, which is based on crosslinking by sulfur. Car tires, for example, are highly crosslinked in order to reduce the leaking of air out of the tire and to toughen their durability. Eraser rubber, on the other hand, is not crosslinked to allow flaking of the rubber and prevent damage to the paper. Polymerization of pure sulfur at higher temperatures also explains why sulfur becomes more viscous with elevated temperatures in its molten state.
A cross-link suggests a branch point from which four or more distinct chains emanate. A polymer molecule with a high degree of crosslinking is referred to as a polymer network. Sufficiently high crosslink concentrations may lead to the formation of an infinite network, also known as a gel, in which networks of chains are of unlimited extent—essentially all chains have linked into one molecule.

Chain length

The physical properties of a polymer are strongly dependent on the size or length of the polymer chain. For example, as chain length is increased, melting and boiling temperatures increase quickly. Impact resistance also tends to increase with chain length, as does the viscosity
Viscosity is a measure of the resistance of a fluid which is being deformed by either shear or tensile stress. In everyday terms , viscosity is "thickness" or "internal friction". Thus, water is "thin", having a lower viscosity, while honey is "thick", having a higher viscosity...

, or resistance to flow, of the polymer in its melt state. Chain length is related to melt viscosity roughly as 1:103.2, so that a tenfold increase in polymer chain length results in a viscosity increase of over 1000 times. Increasing chain length furthermore tends to decrease chain mobility, increase strength and toughness, and increase the glass transition temperature (Tg). This is a result of the increase in chain interactions such as Van der Waals attractions and entanglements that come with increased chain length. These interactions tend to fix the individual chains more strongly in position and resist deformations and matrix breakup, both at higher stresses and higher temperatures.

A common means of expressing the length of a chain is the degree of polymerization
Degree of polymerization
The degree of polymerization, or DP, is usually defined as the number of monomeric units in a macromolecule or polymer or oligomer molecule.For a homopolymer, there is only one type of monomeric unit andthe number-average degree of polymerization is given by...

, which quantifies the number of monomers incorporated into the chain. As with other molecules, a polymer's size may also be expressed in terms of molecular weight. Since synthetic polymerization techniques typically yield a polymer product including a range of molecular weights, the weight is often expressed statistically to describe the distribution of chain lengths present in the same. Common examples are the number average molecular weight and weight average molecular weight. The ratio of these two values is the polydispersity index
Polydispersity index
In physical and organic chemistry, the polydispersity index , is a measure of the distribution of molecular mass in a given polymer sample. The PDI calculated is the weight average molecular weight divided by the number average molecular weight. It indicates the distribution of individual...

, commonly used to express the "width" of the molecular weight distribution. A final measurement is contour length, which can be understood as the length of the chain backbone in its fully extended state.

The flexibility of an unbranched chain polymer is characterized by its persistence length
Persistence length
The persistence length is a basic mechanical property quantifying the stiffness of a polymer or of a string.Informally, for pieces of the polymer that are shorter than the persistence length, the molecule behaves rather like a flexible elastic rod, while for pieces of the polymer that are much...


Monomer arrangement in copolymers

Monomers within a copolymer may be organized along the backbone in a variety of ways.
  • Alternating copolymers possess regularly alternating monomer residues: [AB...]n (2).
  • Periodic copolymers have monomer residue types arranged in a repeating sequence: [AnBm...] m being different from n .
  • Statistical copolymers have monomer residues arranged according to a known statistical rule. A statistical copolymer in which the probability of finding a particular type of monomer residue at a particular point in the chain is independent of the types of surrounding monomer residue may be referred to as a truly random copolymer (3).
  • Block copolymers have two or more homopolymer subunits linked by covalent bonds (4). Polymers with two or three blocks of two distinct chemical species (e.g., A and B) are called diblock copolymers and triblock copolymers, respectively. Polymers with three blocks, each of a different chemical species (e.g., A, B, and C) are termed triblock terpolymers.
  • Graft or grafted copolymers contain side chains that have a different composition or configuration than the main chain.(5)


Tacticity describes the relative stereochemistry
Stereochemistry, a subdiscipline of chemistry, involves the study of the relative spatial arrangement of atoms within molecules. An important branch of stereochemistry is the study of chiral molecules....

 of chiral
Chirality (chemistry)
A chiral molecule is a type of molecule that lacks an internal plane of symmetry and thus has a non-superimposable mirror image. The feature that is most often the cause of chirality in molecules is the presence of an asymmetric carbon atom....

 centers in neighboring structural units within a macromolecule. There are three types: isotactic (all substituents on the same side), atactic (random placement of substituents), and syndiotactic (alternating placement of substituents).

Polymer morphology

Polymer morphology generally describes the arrangement and microscale ordering of polymer chains in space.


When applied to polymers, the term crystalline has a somewhat ambiguous usage. In some cases, the term crystalline finds identical usage to that used in conventional crystallography
Crystallography is the experimental science of the arrangement of atoms in solids. The word "crystallography" derives from the Greek words crystallon = cold drop / frozen drop, with its meaning extending to all solids with some degree of transparency, and grapho = write.Before the development of...

. For example, the structure of a crystalline protein or polynucleotide, such as a sample prepared for x-ray crystallography
X-ray crystallography
X-ray crystallography is a method of determining the arrangement of atoms within a crystal, in which a beam of X-rays strikes a crystal and causes the beam of light to spread into many specific directions. From the angles and intensities of these diffracted beams, a crystallographer can produce a...

, may be defined in terms of a conventional unit cell composed of one or more polymer molecules with cell dimensions of hundreds of angstroms or more.

A synthetic polymer may be loosely described as crystalline if it contains regions of three-dimensional ordering on atomic (rather than macromolecular) length scales, usually arising from intramolecular folding and/or stacking of adjacent chains. Synthetic polymers may consist of both crystalline and amorphous regions; the degree of crystallinity may be expressed in terms of a weight fraction or volume fraction of crystalline material. Few synthetic polymers are entirely crystalline.

The crystallinity of polymers is characterized by their degree of crystallinity, ranging from zero for a completely non-crystalline polymer to one for a theoretical completely crystalline polymer.
Polymers with microcrystalline regions are generally tougher (can be bent more without breaking) and more impact-resistant than totally amorphous polymers.

Polymers with a degree of crystallinity approaching zero or one will tend to be transparent, while polymers with intermediate degrees of crystallinity will tend to be opaque due to light scattering by crystalline or glassy regions. Thus for many polymers, reduced crystallinity may also be associated with increased transparency.

Chain conformation

The space occupied by a polymer molecule is generally expressed in terms of radius of gyration
Radius of gyration
Radius of gyration or gyradius is the name of several related measures of the size of an object, a surface, or an ensemble of points. It is calculated as the root mean square distance of the objects' parts from either its center of gravity or an axis....

, which is an average distance from the center of mass of the chain to the chain itself. Alternatively, it may be expressed in terms of pervaded volume
Pervaded volume
Pervaded volume is a measure of the size of a polymer chain in space. In particular, it is "the volume of solution spanned by the polymer chain".- Scaling :The pervaded volume V scales as the cube of the chain sizeV \approx R^3...

, which is the volume of solution spanned by the polymer chain and scales with the cube of the radius of gyration.

Mechanical properties

The bulk properties of a polymer are those most often of end-use interest. These are the properties that dictate how the polymer actually behaves on a macroscopic scale.

Tensile strength

The tensile strength
Tensile strength
Ultimate tensile strength , often shortened to tensile strength or ultimate strength, is the maximum stress that a material can withstand while being stretched or pulled before necking, which is when the specimen's cross-section starts to significantly contract...

 of a material quantifies how much stress the material will endure before suffering permanent deformation. This is very important in applications that rely upon a polymer's physical strength or durability. For example, a rubber band with a higher tensile strength will hold a greater weight before snapping. In general, tensile strength increases with polymer chain length and crosslinking of polymer chains.

Young's modulus of elasticity

Young's Modulus
Young's modulus
Young's modulus is a measure of the stiffness of an elastic material and is a quantity used to characterize materials. It is defined as the ratio of the uniaxial stress over the uniaxial strain in the range of stress in which Hooke's Law holds. In solid mechanics, the slope of the stress-strain...

 quantifies the elasticity of the polymer. It is defined, for small strains, as the ratio of rate of change of stress to strain. Like tensile strength, this is highly relevant in polymer applications involving the physical properties of polymers, such as rubber bands. The modulus is strongly dependent on temperature.

Transport properties

Transport properties such as diffusivity relate to how rapidly molecules move through the polymer matrix. These are very important in many applications of polymers for films and membranes.

Melting point

The term melting point
Melting point
The melting point of a solid is the temperature at which it changes state from solid to liquid. At the melting point the solid and liquid phase exist in equilibrium. The melting point of a substance depends on pressure and is usually specified at standard atmospheric pressure...

, when applied to polymers, suggests not a solid-liquid phase transition but a transition from a crystalline or semi-crystalline phase to a solid amorphous phase. Though abbreviated as simply Tm, the property in question is more properly called the crystalline melting temperature. Among synthetic polymers, crystalline melting is only discussed with regards to thermoplastics, as thermosetting polymers will decompose at high temperatures rather than melt.

Glass transition temperature

A parameter of particular interest in synthetic polymer manufacturing is the glass transition
Glass transition
The liquid-glass transition is the reversible transition in amorphous materials from a hard and relatively brittle state into a molten or rubber-like state. An amorphous solid that exhibits a glass transition is called a glass...

 temperature (Tg), which describes the temperature at which amorphous polymers undergo a transition from a rubbery, viscous amorphous liquid, to a brittle, glassy amorphous solid. The glass transition temperature may be engineered by altering the degree of branching or crosslinking in the polymer or by the addition of plasticizer
Plasticizers or dispersants are additives that increase the plasticity or fluidity of the material to which they are added; these include plastics, cement, concrete, wallboard, and clay. Although the same compounds are often used for both plastics and concretes the desired effects and results are...


Mixing behavior

In general, polymeric mixtures are far less miscible than mixtures of small molecule
Small molecule
In the fields of pharmacology and biochemistry, a small molecule is a low molecular weight organic compound which is by definition not a polymer...

 materials. This effect results from the fact that the driving force for mixing is usually entropy
Entropy is a thermodynamic property that can be used to determine the energy available for useful work in a thermodynamic process, such as in energy conversion devices, engines, or machines. Such devices can only be driven by convertible energy, and have a theoretical maximum efficiency when...

, not interaction energy. In other words, miscible materials usually form a solution not because their interaction with each other is more favorable than their self-interaction, but because of an increase in entropy and hence free energy associated with increasing the amount of volume available to each component. This increase in entropy scales with the number of particles (or moles) being mixed. Since polymeric molecules are much larger and hence generally have much higher specific volumes than small molecules, the number of molecules involved in a polymeric mixture is far smaller than the number in a small molecule mixture of equal volume. The energetics of mixing, on the other hand, is comparable on a per volume basis for polymeric and small molecule mixtures. This tends to increase the free energy of mixing for polymer solutions and thus make solvation less favorable. Thus, concentrated solutions of polymers are far rarer than those of small molecules.

Furthermore, the phase behavior of polymer solutions and mixtures is more complex than that of small molecule mixtures. Whereas most small molecule solutions exhibit only an upper critical solution temperature
Upper critical solution temperature
The upper critical solution temperature or upper consolute temperature is the critical temperature above which the components of a mixture are miscible in all proportions. The word upper indicates that the UCST is an upper bound to a temperature range of partial miscibility, or miscibility for...

 phase transition, at which phase separation occurs with cooling, polymer mixtures commonly exhibit a lower critical solution temperature
Lower critical solution temperature
The lower critical solution temperature or lower consolute temperature is the critical temperature below which the components of a mixture are miscible for all compositions...

 phase transition, at which phase separation occurs with heating.

In dilute solution, the properties of the polymer are characterized by the interaction between the solvent and the polymer. In a good solvent, the polymer appears swollen and occupies a large volume. In this scenario, intermolecular forces between the solvent and monomer subunits dominate over intramolecular interactions. In a bad solvent or poor solvent, intramolecular forces dominate and the chain contracts. In the theta solvent, or the state of the polymer solution where the value of the second virial coefficient becomes 0, the intermolecular polymer-solvent repulsion balances exactly the intramolecular monomer-monomer attraction. Under the theta condition (also called the Flory condition), the polymer behaves like an ideal random coil
Random coil
A random coil is a polymer conformation where the monomer subunits are oriented randomly while still being bonded to adjacent units. It is not one specific shape, but a statistical distribution of shapes for all the chains in a population of macromolecules...

. The transition between the states is known as a coil-globule transition
Coil-globule transition
In polymer physics, the Coil-globule transition is the collapse of a macromolecule from an expanded coil state through an ideal coil state to a collapsed globule state, or vice-versa. The coil-globule transition is of importance in biology due to the presence of coil-globule transitions in...


Inclusion of plasticizers

Inclusion of plasticizers tends to lower Tg and increase polymer flexibility. Plasticizers are generally small molecules that are chemically similar to the polymer and create gaps between polymer chains for greater mobility and reduced interchain interactions. A good example of the action of plasticizers is related to polyvinylchlorides or PVCs. A uPVC, or unplasticized polyvinylchloride, is used for things such as pipes. A pipe has no plasticizers in it, because it needs to remain strong and heat-resistant. Plasticized PVC is used for clothing for a flexible quality. Plasticizers are also put in some types of cling film to make the polymer more flexible.

Chemical properties

The attractive forces between polymer chains play a large part in determining a polymer's properties. Because polymer chains are so long, these interchain forces are amplified far beyond the attractions between conventional molecules. Different side groups on the polymer can lend the polymer to ionic bonding or hydrogen bonding between its own chains. These stronger forces typically result in higher tensile strength and higher crystalline melting points.

The intermolecular forces in polymers can be affected by dipole
In physics, there are several kinds of dipoles:*An electric dipole is a separation of positive and negative charges. The simplest example of this is a pair of electric charges of equal magnitude but opposite sign, separated by some distance. A permanent electric dipole is called an electret.*A...

s in the monomer units. Polymers containing amide
In chemistry, an amide is an organic compound that contains the functional group consisting of a carbonyl group linked to a nitrogen atom . The term refers both to a class of compounds and a functional group within those compounds. The term amide also refers to deprotonated form of ammonia or an...

 or carbonyl
In organic chemistry, a carbonyl group is a functional group composed of a carbon atom double-bonded to an oxygen atom: C=O. It is common to several classes of organic compounds, as part of many larger functional groups....

 groups can form hydrogen bond
Hydrogen bond
A hydrogen bond is the attractive interaction of a hydrogen atom with an electronegative atom, such as nitrogen, oxygen or fluorine, that comes from another molecule or chemical group. The hydrogen must be covalently bonded to another electronegative atom to create the bond...

s between adjacent chains; the partially positively charged hydrogen atoms in N-H groups of one chain are strongly attracted to the partially negatively charged oxygen atoms in C=O groups on another. These strong hydrogen bonds, for example, result in the high tensile strength and melting point of polymers containing urethane
Carbamates are organic compounds derived from carbamic acid . A carbamate group, carbamate ester, and carbamic acids are functional groups that are inter-related structurally and often are interconverted chemically. Carbamate esters are also called urethanes.-Synthesis:Carbamic acids are derived...

 or urea
Urea or carbamide is an organic compound with the chemical formula CO2. The molecule has two —NH2 groups joined by a carbonyl functional group....

 linkages. Polyester
Polyester is a category of polymers which contain the ester functional group in their main chain. Although there are many polyesters, the term "polyester" as a specific material most commonly refers to polyethylene terephthalate...

s have dipole-dipole bonding between the oxygen atoms in C=O groups and the hydrogen atoms in H-C groups. Dipole bonding is not as strong as hydrogen bonding, so a polyester's melting point and strength are lower than Kevlar
Kevlar is the registered trademark for a para-aramid synthetic fiber, related to other aramids such as Nomex and Technora. Developed at DuPont in 1965, this high strength material was first commercially used in the early 1970s as a replacement for steel in racing tires...

's (Twaron
Twaron is the brandname of Teijin Aramid for a para-aramid. It is a heat-resistant and strong synthetic fibre developed in the early 1970s by the Dutch company AKZO, division Enka, later Akzo Industrial Fibers. The research name of the para-aramid fibre was originally Fiber X, but it was soon...

), but polyesters have greater flexibility.

Ethene, however, has no permanent dipole. The attractive forces between polyethylene chains arise from weak van der Waals force
Van der Waals force
In physical chemistry, the van der Waals force , named after Dutch scientist Johannes Diderik van der Waals, is the sum of the attractive or repulsive forces between molecules other than those due to covalent bonds or to the electrostatic interaction of ions with one another or with neutral...

s. Molecules can be thought of as being surrounded by a cloud of negative electrons. As two polymer chains approach, their electron clouds repel one another. This has the effect of lowering the electron density on one side of a polymer chain, creating a slight positive dipole on this side. This charge is enough to attract the second polymer chain. Van der Waals forces are quite weak, however, so polyethylene can have a lower melting temperature compared to other polymers.

Standardized polymer nomenclature

There are multiple conventions for naming polymer substances. Many commonly used polymers, such as those found in consumer products, are referred to by a common or trivial name. The trivial name is assigned based on historical precedent or popular usage rather than a standardized naming convention. Both the American Chemical Society
American Chemical Society
The American Chemical Society is a scientific society based in the United States that supports scientific inquiry in the field of chemistry. Founded in 1876 at New York University, the ACS currently has more than 161,000 members at all degree-levels and in all fields of chemistry, chemical...

 (ACS) and IUPAC have proposed standardized naming conventions; the ACS and IUPAC conventions are similar but not identical. Examples of the differences between the various naming conventions are given in the table below:
Common name ACS name IUPAC name
Poly(ethylene oxide) or PEO Poly(oxyethylene) Poly(oxyethene)
Poly(ethylene terephthalate) or PET Poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyloxycarbonyl-1,4-phenylenecarbonyl) Poly(oxyetheneoxyterephthaloyl)
Nylon 6
Nylon 6
Nylon 6 or polycaprolactam is a polymer developed by Paul Schlack at IG Farben to reproduce the properties of nylon 6,6 without violating the patent on its production. Unlike most other nylons, nylon 6 is not a condensation polymer, but instead is formed by ring-opening polymerization. This makes...

Poly[amino(1-oxo-1,6-hexanediyl)] Poly[amino(1-oxohexan-1,6-diyl)]

In both standardized conventions, the polymers' names are intended to reflect the monomer(s) from which they are synthesized rather than the precise nature of the repeating subunit. For example, the polymer synthesized from the simple alkene ethene is called polyethylene, retaining the -ene suffix even though the double bond is removed during the polymerization process:

Polymer characterization

The characterization of a polymer requires several parameters which need to be specified. This is because a polymer actually consists of a statistical
Statistics is the study of the collection, organization, analysis, and interpretation of data. It deals with all aspects of this, including the planning of data collection in terms of the design of surveys and experiments....

 distribution of chains of varying lengths, and each chain consists of monomer residues which affect its properties.

A variety of lab techniques are used to determine the properties of polymers. Techniques such as wide angle X-ray scattering
Wide angle X-ray scattering
Wide angle X-ray scattering or Wide angle X-ray diffraction is an X-ray diffraction technique that is often used to determine the crystalline structure of polymers...

, small angle X-ray scattering, and small angle neutron scattering are used to determine the crystalline structure of polymers. Gel permeation chromatography
Gel Permeation Chromatography
Gel permeation chromatography is a type of size exclusion chromatography , that separates analytes on the basis of size. The technique is often used for the analysis of polymers. As a technique, SEC was first developed in 1955 by Lathe and Ruthven. The term gel permeation chromatography can be...

 is used to determine the number average molecular weight, weight average molecular weight, and polydispersity. FTIR, Raman
Raman spectroscopy
Raman spectroscopy is a spectroscopic technique used to study vibrational, rotational, and other low-frequency modes in a system.It relies on inelastic scattering, or Raman scattering, of monochromatic light, usually from a laser in the visible, near infrared, or near ultraviolet range...

 and NMR
Nuclear magnetic resonance
Nuclear magnetic resonance is a physical phenomenon in which magnetic nuclei in a magnetic field absorb and re-emit electromagnetic radiation...

 can be used to determine composition. Thermal properties such as the glass transition temperature and melting point can be determined by differential scanning calorimetry
Differential scanning calorimetry
Differential scanning calorimetry or DSC is a thermoanalytical technique in which the difference in the amount of heat required to increase the temperature of a sample and reference is measured as a function of temperature. Both the sample and reference are maintained at nearly the same temperature...

 and dynamic mechanical analysis
Dynamic mechanical analysis
Dynamic mechanical analysis is a technique used to study and characterize materials. It is most useful for studying the viscoelastic behavior of polymers. A sinusoidal stress is applied and the strain in the material is measured, allowing one to determine the complex modulus...

. Pyrolysis
Pyrolysis is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures without the participation of oxygen. It involves the simultaneous change of chemical composition and physical phase, and is irreversible...

 followed by analysis of the fragments is one more technique for determining the possible structure of the polymer. Thermogravimetry
Thermogravimetry is a branch of physical chemistry, materials research, and thermal analysis...

 is a useful technique to evaluate the thermal stability of the polymer. Detailed analyses of TG curves also allow us to know a bit of the phase segregation in polymers. Rheological properties are also commonly used to help determine molecular architecture (molecular weight, molecular weight distribution and branching)as well as to understand how the polymer will process, through measurements of the polymer in the melt phase. Another polymer characterization technique is Automatic Continuous Online Monitoring of Polymerization Reactions (ACOMP) which provides real-time characterization of polymerization reactions. It can be used as an analytical method in R&D, as a tool for reaction optimization at the bench and pilot plant level and, eventually, for feedback control of full-scale reactors. ACOMP measures in a model-independent fashion the evolution of average molar mass and intrinsic viscosity, monomer conversion kinetics and, in the case of copolymers, also the average composition drift and distribution. It is applicable in the areas of free radical and controlled radical homo- and copolymerization, polyelectrolyte synthesis, heterogeneous phase reactions, including emulsion polymerization, adaptation to batch and continuous reactors, and modifications of polymers.

Polymer degradation

Polymer degradation is a change in the properties—tensile strength, color
Color or colour is the visual perceptual property corresponding in humans to the categories called red, green, blue and others. Color derives from the spectrum of light interacting in the eye with the spectral sensitivities of the light receptors...

, shape, or molecular weight—of a polymer or polymer-based product under the influence of one or more environmental factors, such as heat
In physics and thermodynamics, heat is energy transferred from one body, region, or thermodynamic system to another due to thermal contact or thermal radiation when the systems are at different temperatures. It is often described as one of the fundamental processes of energy transfer between...

, light
Light or visible light is electromagnetic radiation that is visible to the human eye, and is responsible for the sense of sight. Visible light has wavelength in a range from about 380 nanometres to about 740 nm, with a frequency range of about 405 THz to 790 THz...

, chemicals and, in some cases, galvanic action. It is often due to the scission of polymer chain bonds via hydrolysis
Hydrolysis is a chemical reaction during which molecules of water are split into hydrogen cations and hydroxide anions in the process of a chemical mechanism. It is the type of reaction that is used to break down certain polymers, especially those made by condensation polymerization...

, leading to a decrease in the molecular mass of the polymer.

Although such changes are frequently undesirable, in some cases, such as biodegradation
Biodegradation or biotic degradation or biotic decomposition is the chemical dissolution of materials by bacteria or other biological means...

 and recycling
Recycling is processing used materials into new products to prevent waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, reduce energy usage, reduce air pollution and water pollution by reducing the need for "conventional" waste disposal, and lower greenhouse...

, they may be intended to prevent environmental pollution
Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into a natural environment that causes instability, disorder, harm or discomfort to the ecosystem i.e. physical systems or living organisms. Pollution can take the form of chemical substances or energy, such as noise, heat or light...

. Degradation can also be useful in biomedical settings. For example, a copolymer of polylactic acid
Polylactic acid
Poly or polylactide is a thermoplastic aliphatic polyester derived from renewable resources, such as corn starch , tapioca products or sugarcanes...

 and polyglycolic acid is employed in hydrolysable stitches that slowly degrade after they are applied to a wound.

The susceptibility of a polymer to degradation depends on its structure. Epoxies and chains containing aromatic functionalities are especially susceptible to UV degradation
UV degradation
Many natural and synthetic polymers are attacked by ultra-violet radiation and products made using these materials may crack or disintegrate . The problem is known as UV degradation, and is a common problem in products exposed to sunlight...

 while polyesters are susceptible to degradation by hydrolysis, while polymers containing an unsaturated backbone are especially susceptible to ozone cracking
Ozone cracking
Cracks can be formed in many different elastomers by ozone attack, and the characteristic form of attack of vulnerable rubbers is known as ozone cracking...

. Carbon based polymers are more susceptible to thermal degradation than inorganic polymers such as polydimethylsiloxane
Polydimethylsiloxane belongs to a group of polymeric organosilicon compounds that are commonly referred to as silicones. PDMS is the most widely used silicon-based organic polymer, and is particularly known for its unusual rheological properties. PDMS is optically clear, and, in general, is...

 and are therefore not ideal for most high-temperature applications. High-temperature matrices such as bismaleimides (BMI), condensation polyimides (with an O-C-N bond), triazines (with a nitrogen (N) containing ring), and blends thereof are susceptible to polymer degradation in the form of galvanic corrosion when bare carbon fiber reinforced polymer CFRP is in contact with an active metal such as aluminum in salt water environments.

The degradation of polymers to form smaller molecules may proceed by random scission or specific scission. The degradation of polyethylene occurs by random scission—a random breakage of the bonds that hold the atoms of the polymer together. When heated above 450 °C, polyethylene degrades to form a mixture of hydrocarbons. Other polymers, such as poly(alpha-methylstyrene), undergo specific chain scission with breakage occurring only at the ends. They literally unzip or depolymerize
Depolymerization is the process of converting a polymer into a monomer or a mixture of monomers.Thioglycolysis, thiolysis and phloroglucinolysis are reactions used to study condensed tannins by means of their depolymerisation. Thioglycolysis is also used to study lignin....

 back to the constituent monomer.

The sorting of polymer waste for recycling purposes may be facilitated by the use of the Resin identification code
Resin identification code
The SPI resin identification coding system is a set of symbols placed on plastics to identify the polymer type. It was developed by the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1988, and is used internationally....

s developed by the Society of the Plastics Industry
Society of the Plastics Industry
Founded in 1937, The Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. is the trade association representing one of the largest manufacturing industries in the United States. SPIs members represent the entire plastics industry supply chain in the US, including processors, machinery and equipment manufacturers...

 to identify the type of plastic.

Product failure

In a finished product, such a change is to be prevented or delayed. Failure of safety-critical polymer components can cause serious accidents, such as fire in the case of cracked and degraded polymer fuel line
Fuel line
A fuel line is a hose used to bring fuel from one point in a vehicle to another or from a storage tank to a vehicle. It is commonly made of reinforced rubber to prevent splitting and kinking....

s. Chlorine-induced cracking of acetal resin plumbing joints and polybutylene
Polybutylene is a polyolefin or saturated polymer with the chemical formula n. It should not be confused with polybutene, a low molecular weight oligomer with a different repeat unit....

 pipes has caused many serious floods in domestic properties, especially in the USA in the 1990s. Traces of chlorine
Chlorine is the chemical element with atomic number 17 and symbol Cl. It is the second lightest halogen, found in the periodic table in group 17. The element forms diatomic molecules under standard conditions, called dichlorine...

 in the water supply attacked vulnerable polymers in the plastic plumbing, a problem which occurs faster if any of the parts have been poorly extruded or injection molded
Injection molding
Injection molding is a manufacturing process for producing parts from both thermoplastic and thermosetting plastic materials. Material is fed into a heated barrel, mixed, and forced into a mold cavity where it cools and hardens to the configuration of the cavity...

. Attack of the acetal joint occurred because of faulty molding, leading to cracking along the threads of the fitting which is a serious stress concentration
Stress concentration
A stress concentration is a location in an object where stress is concentrated. An object is strongest when force is evenly distributed over its area, so a reduction in area, e.g. caused by a crack, results in a localized increase in stress...


Polymer oxidation has caused accidents involving medical device
Medical device
A medical device is a product which is used for medical purposes in patients, in diagnosis, therapy or surgery . Whereas medicinal products achieve their principal action by pharmacological, metabolic or immunological means. Medical devices act by other means like physical, mechanical, thermal,...

s. One of the oldest known failure modes is ozone cracking caused by chain scission when ozone
Ozone , or trioxygen, is a triatomic molecule, consisting of three oxygen atoms. It is an allotrope of oxygen that is much less stable than the diatomic allotrope...

 gas attacks susceptible elastomers, such as natural rubber and nitrile rubber
Nitrile rubber
Nitrile rubber, also known as Buna-N, Perbunan, or NBR, is a synthetic rubber copolymer of acrylonitrile and butadiene. Trade names include Nipol, Krynac and Europrene....

. They possess double bonds in their repeat units which are cleaved during ozonolysis
Ozonolysis is the cleavage of an alkene or alkyne with ozone to form organic compounds in which the multiple carbon–carbon bond has been replaced by a double bond to oxygen...

. Cracks in fuel lines can penetrate the bore of the tube and cause fuel leakage. If cracking occurs in the engine compartment, electric sparks can ignite the gasoline
Gasoline , or petrol , is a toxic, translucent, petroleum-derived liquid that is primarily used as a fuel in internal combustion engines. It consists mostly of organic compounds obtained by the fractional distillation of petroleum, enhanced with a variety of additives. Some gasolines also contain...

 and can cause a serious fire.

Fuel lines can also be attacked by another form of degradation: hydrolysis. Nylon 6,6 is susceptible to acid hydrolysis
Acid hydrolysis
Acid hydrolysis is a chemical process in which acid is used to convert cellulose or starch to sugar.It implies a chemical mechanism of hydrolysis catalyzed by a Brønsted-Lowry or Arrhenius acid. By contrast, it does not usually imply hydrolysis by direct electrophilic attack—as may originate from...

, and in one accident, a fractured fuel line led to a spillage of diesel into the road. If diesel fuel leaks onto the road, accidents to following cars can be caused by the slippery nature of the deposit, which is like black ice
Black ice
Black ice, sometimes called glare ice or clear ice, refers to a thin coating of glazed ice on a surface.While not truly black, it is virtually transparent, allowing black asphalt/macadam roadways to be seen through it, hence the term "black ice"...


See also

  • Biopolymer
    Biopolymers are polymers produced by living organisms. Since they are polymers, Biopolymers contain monomeric units that are covalently bonded to form larger structures. There are three main classes of biopolymers based on the differing monomeric units used and the structure of the biopolymer formed...

  • Conjugated microporous polymer
    Conjugated microporous polymer
    Conjugated microporous polymers are a sub-class of porous materials, related to structures such as zeolites, metal-organic frameworks, and covalent organic frameworks, but amorphous in nature, rather than crystalline...

  • DNA condensation
    DNA condensation
    DNA condensation refers to the process of compacting DNA molecules in vitro or in vivo. Mechanistic details of DNA packing are essential for its functioning in the process of gene regulation in living systems. Condensed DNA often has surprising properties, which one would not predict from classical...

  • Emulsion dispersion
    Emulsion dispersion
    An emulsion dispersion is thermoplastics or elastomers suspended in a waterphase with help of emulsifiers.-Preparation:Emulsions are thermodynamically unstable liquid/liquid dispersions that are stabilized, in general, by surfactants...

  • Electroactive polymers
    Electroactive polymers
    Electroactive Polymers, or EAPs, are polymers that exhibit a change in size or shape when stimulated by an electric field. The most common applications of this type of material are in actuators and sensors. A typical characteristic property of an EAP is that they will undergo a large amount of...

  • Ferroelectric polymers
    Ferroelectric polymers
    Ferroelectric Polymersare a group of crystalline polar polymers that are also ferroelectric, meaning that they maintain a permanent electric polarization that can be reversed, or switched, in an external electric field....

  • Forensic polymer engineering
    Forensic polymer engineering
    The study of failure in polymeric products is called forensic polymer engineering. The topic includes the fracture of plastic products, or any other reason why such a product fails in service, or fails to meet its specification...

  • Important publications in polymer chemistry
  • Molecular design software
    Molecular Design software
    Molecular design software is software for molecular modeling, that provides special support for developing molecular models de novo.In contrast to the usual molecular modeling programs such as the molecular dynamics and quantum chemistry programs, such software directly supports the aspects related...

  • Polyanhydrides
    Polyanhydrides are a class of biodegradable polymers characterized by anhydride bonds that connect repeat units of the polymer backbone chain. Their main application is in the medical device and pharmaceutical industry. In vivo, polyanhydrides degrade into non-toxic diacid monomers that can be...

  • Polymer adsorption
    Polymer adsorption
    Adsorption is the adhesion of ions or molecules onto the surface of another phase. Adsorption may occur via physisorption and chemisorption. Ions and molecules can adsorb to many types of surfaces including polymer surfaces. A polymer is a large molecule composed of repeating subunits bound...

  • Polymer classes
  • Polymer engineering
    Polymer engineering
    Polymer engineering is generally an engineering field that designs, analyses, and/or modifies polymer materials. Polymer engineering covers aspects of petrochemical industry, polymerization, structure and characterization of polymers, properties of polymers, compounding and processing of polymers...

  • Polymer Journal
    Polymer Journal
    Polymer Journal is the official journal of the Society of Polymer Science, Japan and publishes original articles, notes, short communications and reviews on developments in macromolecule research. It is an international peer-reviewed journal that is published on a monthly basis...

  • Polymer separators
    Polymer separators
    A polymer separator is a permeable membrane placed between the anode and cathode of a battery. The main function of a separator is to keep the positive and negative electrodes, the cathode and anode respectively, apart to prevent electrical short circuits while also allowing the transport of ionic...

  • Polymerization
    In polymer chemistry, polymerization is a process of reacting monomer molecules together in a chemical reaction to form three-dimensional networks or polymer chains...

  • Polymersome
    In biotechnology, polymersomes are a class of artificial vesicles, tiny hollow spheres that enclose a solution. Polymersomes are made using amphiphilic synthetic block copolymers to form the vesicle membrane, and have radii ranging from 50 nm to 5 µm or more...

  • Shape memory polymer
    Shape Memory Polymer
    Shape-memory polymers are polymeric smart materials that have the ability to return from a deformed state to their original shape induced by an external stimulus , such as temperature change....

  • Smart materials
  • Sol-gel
  • Solid
    Solid is one of the three classical states of matter . It is characterized by structural rigidity and resistance to changes of shape or volume. Unlike a liquid, a solid object does not flow to take on the shape of its container, nor does it expand to fill the entire volume available to it like a...

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