Most commercial plastics are synthesized from simpler molecules, or monomers. The simple chemicals from which monomers, and ultimately polymers, are derived are usually obtained from crude oil or natural gas, but may also come from coal, sand, salt, or air.
For example, the molecules used to form polystyrene, a widely used plastic, are benzene and ethylene. These two molecules are reacted to form ethyl benzene, which is further reacted to give a styrene monomer. With the aid of a catalyst, styrene monomers may form a chain of linked, bonded styrene units. This method of constructing a polymer molecule is known as addition polymerization, and characterizes the way most plastics-including polystyrenes, acrylics, vinyls, fluoroplastics-are formed.
When two different molecules are combined to form a chain in such a way that a small molecule such as water is produced as a by-product, the method of building the molecule is known as condensation polymerization. This type of polymerization characterizes a second class of plastics. Nylons are examples of condensation polymers.
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