Polymers do make life convenient in the 21st century.
Opening a vacuum-sealed pack reminds you that your beef tapa lasts longer than it did in 1950. To wash it down, you gulp a bottle of H2O made from thermoplastic polymer. Your cellphone sounds an alarm. “Time to stretch and struggle!” So you put on your neon-colored rubber shoes and special Lycra gym-shorts. Wait—you forgot your slim, bendable earphones, to fuel heart-pumping beats into your workout. Then you slip on a water-resistant arm band case for your phone. Check the time, and heart rate, plus your blood pressure by glancing at your smart watch. Now you’re ready to jog a block or two to that new ice cream place.
Polymers touch every part of life as we know it. No wonder it’s hard to kick the polymer habit. But how far is too far before the point of no return?
From seed trays, fertilizer bags, water pipes in the agricultural sector to garbage bags, food containers, coffee stirrers, paper clips; even bacterial culture plates, syringes, medicine containers and surgical gloves in the medical field, all litter with polymer applications.
Not all synthetic polymers are made equal.
There are four main categories of synthetic polymers—there are many actually but that is for another time and place: Thermoplastics, which can be heat sensitive, re-moldable and are therefore recyclable. The most familiar application is our plastic bottles and plastic bags. There’s also the Thermosets. As the name implies, once it sets, it’s hard and irreversible and cannot be recycled except as material fillers. We may know them better as epoxies, used from dental fillings, adhesives to rocket casings. The third is called Elastomers. Some of the better known applications are polybutadiene (as in rubber tires and tubing), polyurethanes (e.g. Lycra and other textiles), neoprene (for wetsuits and wire insulators), and the infamous silicone. The fourth category belongs to the synthetic fibers such as rayon, polyester, nylon and the like.
A course on Material Engineering is the way to go for the next decade. The uses of polymers will likely expand and the race to find a more environmentally-friendly yet hardy polymer will become more frantic as the temperature continues to rise.
More on plastic polymers in the next blog!