History, Chemistry, Polymerization, Manufacture And Processing, Thermoplastics, Crystalline And Noncrystalline Thermoplastics, ThermosetsMolecular weight
In the twentieth century, the term plastic has come to refer to a class of materials that, under suitable conditions, can be deformed by some kind of shaping or molding process to produce an end product that retains its shape. When used as an adjective, the term plastic (from Greek plastikos meaning to mold or form) describes a material that can be shaped or molded with or without the application of heat. With few exceptions, plastics do not flow freely like liquids, but retain their shapes like solids even when flowing.
When used in a chemical sense, the term plastic usually refers to a synthetic high molecular weight chain molecule, or polymer, that may have been combined with other ingredients to modify its physical properties. Most plastics are based on carbon, being derived from materials that have some relationship to living, or organic, materials, although, although some plastics, like acetal resins and silicones, contain oxygen or silicon atoms in their chains.
As plastics are heated to moderate temperatures, the polymer chains are able to flow past each other. Because of the organic nature of most plastics, they usually cannot withstand high temperatures and begin to decompose at temperatures around 392°F (200°C).
The oldest known examples of plastic materials are soft waxes, asphalts, and moist clays. These materials are capable of flowing like synthetic plastics, but because they are not polymeric, they are usually not referred to as plastics.
Polymers exist on a continuum that extends from simple gases to molecules of very high molecular weights. A relatively simple polymer has the structure
where the number (n) of monomers (CH2 groups, in this case) in the chain may extend up to several thousand. Table 1 shows how the physical properties and uses of the polymer change with the number of repeating monomer units in the chain.
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