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Plastic straws, made from polymers

Polymers are very large molecules that are made up of many repeating units. They are made by joining together hundreds or even thousands of small molecular units, called monomers. Polymers affect every day of our life. These materials have so many varied characteristics and applications that their usefulness is only limited by our imagination.

In order to make a polymer, several monomers have to be chemically linked together, in a polymerisation reaction. Polymers exist in nature and can also be made synthetically to achieve materials with specific properties. Examples of natural polymers include DNA, cellulose, protein polymers including keratin (in your hair), and gelatin; these are often refered to as biopolymers (biological polymers).

The first synthetic manufactured plastic was Bakelite, created in 1909 for telephone casing and electrical components in New York,  by the Belgian-American chemist, Leo Baekeland. Today synthetic plastics are found everywhere; Dr Baekeland’s new material led to the Age of Plastics and the growth of a worldwide industry in plastics manufacturing.

Synthetic polymers also dominate the textile industry. The first manufactured polymeric fiber was Rayon, from cellulose, in 1910, which was known as ‘artificial silk’. It is possible to make Rayon in the lab – take a look at this RSC resource. Nylon was later developed, in 1935, before the first polyesters were introduced by British chemists in the 1940s.

Despite the many advantages of polymeric materials, we face challenges in the waste management and recycling of plastics.

To find out more about polymers click here.

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