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How Plastics Work

January 20, 2021
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We use plastics every day, but have you ever stopped to wonder how they really work?

According to How Stuff Works:

“Plastics are everywhere. While you’re reading this article, there are probably numerous plastic items within your reach (your computer, your pen, your phone). A plastic is any material that can be shaped or molded into any form — some are naturally occurring, but most are man-made.

“Plastics are made from oil. Oil is a carbon-rich raw material, and plastics are large carbon-containing compounds. They’re large molecules called polymers, which are composed of repeating units of shorter carbon-containing compounds called monomers. Chemists combine various types of monomers in many different arrangements to make an almost infinite variety of plastics with different chemical properties. Most plastic is chemically inert and will not react chemically with other substances — you can store alcohol, soap, water, acid or gasoline in a plastic container without dissolving the container itself. Plastic can be molded into an almost infinite variety of shapes, so you can find it in toys, cups, bottles, utensils, wiring, cars, even in bubble gum. Plastics have revolutionized the world.

“Because plastic doesn’t react chemically with most other substances, it doesn’t decay. Therefore, plastic disposal poses a difficult and significant environmental problem. Plastic hangs around in the environment for centuries, so recycling is the best method of disposal. However, new technologies are being developed to make plastic from biological substances like corn oil. These types of plastics would be biodegradable and better for the environment.

“In this article, we’ll examine the chemistry of plastic, how it’s made, how it’s used, and how it’s disposed of and recycled. We’ll also look at some new biologically based plastics and their role in the future of plastic.

“Before the invention of plastic, the only substances that could be molded were clays (pottery) and glass. Hardened clay and glass were used for storage, but they were heavy and brittle. Some natural substances, like tree gums and rubber, were sticky and moldable. Rubber wasn’t very useful for storage because it eventually lost its ability to bounce back into shape and became sticky when heated.

“In 1839, Charles Goodyear accidentally discovered a process in which sulfur reacted with crude rubber when heated and then cooled. The rubber became resilient upon cooling — it could stretch, but it snapped back to its original shape. It also retained its resilience when heated. We now know that the sulfur forms chemical bonds between adjacent rubber polymer strands. The bonds cross-link the polymer strands, allowing them to “snap back” when stretched. Charles Goodyear had discovered the process now known as vulcanization, which made rubber more durable.

“In 1846, Charles Schonbein, a Swiss chemist, accidentally discovered another polymer when he spilled a nitric acid-sulfuric acid mixture on some cotton. A chemical reaction occurred in which the hydroxyl groups of the cellulose fibers in the cotton were converted to nitrate groups catalyzed by the sulfur. The resultant polymer, nitrocellulose, could burst into a smokeless flame and was used by the military in place of gunpowder. In 1870, chemist John Hyatt reacted nitrocellulose with camphor to make celluloid, a plastic polymer that was used in photographic film, billiard balls, dental plates and Ping-Pong balls.

“In 1909, a chemist named Leo Baekeland synthesized Bakelite, the first truly synthetic polymer, from a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde. The condensation reaction between these monomers allows the formaldehyde to bind the phenol rings into rigid three-dimensional polymers. So, Bakelite can be molded when hot and solidified into a hard plastic that can be used for handles, phones, auto parts, furniture and even jewelry. Bakelite is hard, resistant to heat and electricity, and can’t be easily melted or scorched once cooled. The invention of Bakelite led to a whole class of plastics with similar properties, known as phenolic resins.

“In the 1930s, a Dupont chemist named Wallace Carruthers invented a plastic polymer made from the condensation of adipic acid and a certain type of diaminohexane monomers that could be drawn out into strong fibers, like silk. This plastic became known as nylon. Nylon is lightweight, strong and durable and became the basis of many types of clothing, coverings (tents), luggage, bags and ropes.

“The use of these early polymers became widespread following World War II and continues today. They lead to the creation of many other plastics, like Dacron, Styrofoam, polystyrene, polyethylene and vinyl…

Types of Plastics

“1. Thermoset or thermosetting plastics. Once cooled and hardened, these plastics retain their shapes and cannot return to their original form. They are hard and durable. Thermosets can be used for auto parts, aircraft parts and tires. Examples include polyurethanes, polyesters, epoxy resins and phenolic resins.

“2. Thermoplastics. Less rigid than thermosets, thermoplastics can soften upon heating and return to their original form. They are easily molded and extruded into films, fibers and packaging. Examples include polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Let’s look at some common plastics.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE): John Rex Whinfield invented a new polymer in 1941 when he condensed ethylene glycol with terephthalic acid. The condensate was polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE). PET is a thermoplastic that can be drawn into fibers (like Dacron) and films (like Mylar). It’s the main plastic in ziplock food storage bags.

Polystyrene (Styrofoam): Polystyrene is formed by styrene molecules. The double bond between the CH2 and CH parts of the molecule rearranges to form a bond with adjacent styrene molecules, thereby producing polystyrene. It can form a hard impact-resistant plastic for furniture, cabinets (for computer monitors and TVs), glasses and utensils. When polystyrene is heated and air blown through the mixture, it forms Styrofoam. Styrofoam is lightweight, moldable and an excellent insulator.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): PVC is a thermoplastic that is formed when vinyl chloride (CH2=CH-Cl) polymerizes. When made, it’s brittle, so manufacturers add a plasticizer liquid to make it soft and moldable. PVC is commonly used for pipes and plumbing because it’s durable, can’t be corroded and is cheaper than metal pipes. Over long periods of time, however, the plasticizer may leach out of it, rendering it brittle and breakable.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon): Teflon was made in 1938 by DuPont. It’s created by polymerization of tetrafluoroethylene molecules (CF2=CF2). The polymer is stable, heat-resistant, strong, resistant to many chemicals and has a nearly frictionless surface. Teflon is used in plumbing tape, cookware, tubing, waterproof coatings, films and bearings.

Polyvinylidine Chloride (Saran): Dow makes Saran resins, which are synthesized by polymerization of vinylidine chloride molecules (CH2=CCl2). The polymer can be drawn into films and wraps that are impermeable to food odors. Saran wrap is a popular plastic for packaging foods.

Polyethylene, LDPE and HDPE: The most common polymer in plastics is polyethylene, which is made from ethylene monomers (CH2=CH2). The first polyethylene was made in 1934. Today, we call it low-density polyethylene (LDPE) because it will float in a mixture of alcohol and water. In LDPE, the polymer strands are entangled and loosely organized, so it’s soft and flexible. It was first used to insulate electrical wires, but today it’s used in films, wraps, bottles, disposable gloves and garbage bags.

“In the 1950s, Karl Ziegler polymerized ethylene in the presence of various metals. The resulting polyethylene polymer was composed of mostly linear polymers. This linear form produced tighter, denser, more organized structures and is now called high-density polyethylene (HDPE). HDPE is a harder plastic with a higher melting point than LDPE, and it sinks in an alcohol-water mixture. HDPE was first introduced in the hula hoop, but today it’s mostly used in containers.

Polypropylene (PP): In 1953, Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta, working independently, prepared polypropylene from propylene monomers (CH2=CHCH3) and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963. The various forms of polypropylene have different melting points and hardnesses. Polypropylene is used in car trim, battery cases, bottles, tubes, filaments and bags…

Making Plastics

“To make plastics, chemists and chemical engineers must do the following on an industrial scale:

  1. Prepare raw materials and monomers
  2. Carry out polymerization reactions
  3. Process the polymers into final polymer resins
  4. Produce finished products

“First, they must start with various raw materials that make up the monomers. Ethylene and propylene, for example, come from crude oil, which contains the hydrocarbons that make up the monomers. The hydrocarbon raw materials are obtained from the “cracking process” used in refining oil and natural gas (see How Oil Refining Works). Once various hydrocarbons are obtained from cracking, they are chemically processed to make hydrocarbon monomers and other carbon monomers (like styrene, vinyl chloride, acrylonitrile) used in plastics.

“Next, the monomers carry out polymerization reactions in large polymerization plants. The reactions produce polymer resins, which are collected and further processed. Processing can include the addition of plasticizers, dyes and flame-retardant chemicals. The final polymer resins are usually in the forms of pellets or beads.

“Finally, the polymer resins are processed into final plastic products. Generally, they are heated, molded and allowed to cool. There are several processes involved in this stage, depending upon the type of product.

Extrusion: Pellets are heated and mechanically mixed in a long chamber, forced through a small opening and cooled with air or water. This method is used to make plastic films.

Injection molding: The resin pellets are heated and mechanically mixed in a chamber and then forced under high pressure into a cooled mold. This process is used for containers like butter and yogurt tubs…

Blow molding: This technique is used in conjunction with extrusion or injection molding. The resin pellets are heated and compressed into a liquid tube, like toothpaste. The resin goes into the chilled mold, and compressed air gets blown into the resin tube. The air expands the resin against the walls of the mold. This process is used to make plastic bottles.

“Rotational molding: The resin pellets are heated and cooled in a mold that can be rotated in three dimensions. The rotation evenly distributes the plastic along the walls of the mold. This technique is used to make large, hollow plastic items (toys, furniture, sporting equipment, septic tanks, garbage cans and kayaks)…”

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