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There are more than 100 different chemical atoms, known as elements. They are represented by the chemist by the use of simple symbols such as "H" for hydrogen, "O" for oxygen, "C" for carbon, "N" for nitrogen, "Cl" for chlorine, and so on; these atoms have atomic weights of 1, 16, 12, 14, and 17 atomic units, respectively.

A chemical reaction between two or more atoms forms a molecule. Each molecule is characterized by its elemental constitution and its molecular weight. For example, when carbon is burned in oxygen, one atom of carbon (C) reacts with two atoms of oxygen (O2; equivalent to one molecule of molecular oxygen) to form carbon dioxide (CO2). The chemist represents this reaction by a chemical equation, i.e.,

Similarly, when four atoms of hydrogen (2H2; equivalent to two molecules of molecular hydrogen) and two atoms of oxygen (O2; equivalent to one molecule of oxygen) react to form two molecules of water (2H2O), the chemist writes

Note that one molecule of oxygen combines with two molecules of hydrogen, and one atom of carbon combines with one molecule of hydrogen. This is because different elements have different combining capacities. Thus hydrogen forms one bond, oxygen two bonds, and carbon four bonds. These bonding capacities, or valences, are taken for granted when writing a chemical formula like H2O.

In the case of methane, or CH4, the carbon is bonded to four hydrogen atoms. But carbon can also form double bonds, as in ethylene (C2H4) where two CH2molecules share a double bond. The chemist could also describe the ethylene molecule by the formula CH2=CH2, where the double bond is represented by an equal sign.

Plastic materials consist of many repeating groups of atoms or molecules (called monomers) in long chains, and hence are also known as polymers or macromolecules. Elements present in a polymer chain typically include oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, silicon, fluorine,

Number of CH2 units in chain Appearance at room temperature Uses
1 to 4 simple gas cooking gas
5 to 11 simple liquid gasoline
9 to 16 medium viscosity liquid kerosene
16 to 25 high viscosity liquid oil and grease
25 to 50 simple solid paraffin wax candles
1000 to 3000 tough plastic solid polyethylene bottle and containers

chlorine, or sulfur. The way the polymer chains are linked together and the lengths of the chains determine the mechanical and physical properties of the plastic.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositPlastics - History, Chemistry, Polymerization, Manufacture And Processing, Thermoplastics, Crystalline And Noncrystalline Thermoplastics, Thermosets - Molecular weight