What Is Polymer?
does not refer to a specific substance, but rather a phenomena of
that is observed in nearly an infinite number of different substances.
POLY is of Greek origin and means many.
MER means part or parts. Polymer
molecules are made of
"Carbon-based-life-form" isn't just a science fiction phrase!
With the exception of
carbon dioxide (CO2),
carbon monoxide (CO)
a group of minerals called
every molecule that contains carbon is an
molecule. The existence of all organic molecules
is inherently connected to the
force of life
and all life depends entirely on every
ability to form organic molecules
from carbon dioxide,
and energy from the Sun!
Carbon is a very special element.
As a single
it has four places to
with other atoms to form
In real three dimensional space, these four bonds are arranged as the points of a
a three sided pyramid.
Other atoms may be connected to these four points.
This compound of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms is
Carbon atoms bond to each other very well!
This compound of two carbon atoms and six hydrogen atoms is
gas (C2H6). It is also a simple example of a molecule made of parts. It is two
methane molecules stuck together (sort of).
(C6H14). It has six carbon atoms.
Any number of carbon atoms can be found stuck together this way. The first ten
molecules containing only carbon and hydrogen, are listed below.
1 Methane CH4 CH4
2 Ethane C2H6 CH3CH3
3 Propane C3H8 CH3CH2CH3
4 Butane C4H10 CH3CH2CH2CH3
5 Pentane C5H12 CH3CH2CH2CH2CH3
6 Hexane C6H14 CH3CH2CH2CH2CH2CH3
7 Heptane C7H16 CH3CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2CH3
8 Octane C8H18 CH3CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2CH3
9 Nonane C9H20 CH3CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2CH3
10 Decane C10H22 CH3CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2CH2CH3
All of these compounds and many others are collectively called
They are all found in
The first four are
at normal atmospheric pressure, the next bunch are
They are all very
and commonly used as fuel.
When seventeen or more carbons are found together in a hydrocarbon chain it is a
It is important to note that crude oil is organic waste.
All of the crude oil and coal
that exists today was once the life that inhabited the
millions of years ago.
It has no food value to any living thing, but it is still
100% organic material. All of the
between all the atoms within every molecule were assembled
within living organisms. Over millions of years, these molecules
were broken down by other organisms, heat, presure and radiation.
When oil and coal burn, they release that last bit of energy that makes
them organic. They are reduced to mainly carbon dioxide, water and a
There is only one way carbon returns to organic molecules.
Living plants absorb carbon dioxide from the
and water from the
and with the energy from the
in a process called
they recombine the elements
into newly formed organic molecules.
protozoa eat the plants
and each other converting the organic materials they eat into
new and different complex organic molecules.
Polymers are everywhere!
Certainly not limited to just carbon and hydrogen and certainly not limited to
linear chains, polymers can be made of much more complex
monomers, the individual molecular components
that form polymers. Given the presence of just one more element,
oxygen, (O), in just the right arrangements, we have a
classification of compounds called
carbohydrates, otherwise known as
Carbohydrates are used as fuel and fuel storage inside every cell in every living thing.
This is a flat representation of the
Glucose is the most important carbohydrate to all living organisms because of the
central role it plays in
the generation of life giving energy from chemical reactions.
H H H OH H H
| | | | | |
H - C - C - C - C - C - C = O
| | | | |
OH OH OH H OH
Glucose molecules can link together end-to-end to form long chain polymers.
One variation of this formation is called
cellulose. Cellulose is the primary structural
molecule of all
and therefore the single most common, by mass, organic polymer
molecule on Earth. A puff of natural
is an example of nearly pure cellulose.
is no less than 70% cellulose.
are examples of synthetic plastics
that are actually cellulose polymer fibers that have been slightly altered by human
polymer science and engineering.
The shape of things
The tetrahedron shape of a carbon atom does not have a central axis of rotation.
A line between any two points is an edge that does not pass through
the center of the solid space. To put it another way, when connecting a
of tetrahedrons together,
point to point,
there is no way to form a straight line.
The picture of hexane above is a
as a two dimensional drawing, but in reality,
polymer molecules are much more
complex three dimensional shapes.
The carbon to carbon bonds that connect each "bead" in the string
But since these points of rotation are not in a straight line, through the center of the "bead",
long chains of carbons form
kinky, curly spirals
around each other. Polymer molecules are very
animated, wiggling things!
Polymers are alive!
Sugars, starches, oils, fats, enzymes, hormones, proteins and countless other essential
components of living things are all organic molecules based on carbon's ability to form
a backbone and hold on to many other atoms or molecules.
is yet another example of
a very complex polymer molecule.
As a matter of fact, if it was possible to remove all of the water and basic minerals
from any living organism, all that would be left would be organic, polymer molecules.
Vitalism vs. Mechanism
Human technology can not create organic molecules! All we can do is rearrange the ones
that already exist.
There are two opposing philosophies about this very subject:
is the idea that all chemistry, even the most complex DNA structures, can be explained
in terms of ordinary mechanics and
physics, some of which we just haven't discovered yet.
Vitalism is the idea that in order to form even the simplest
organic molecule, an immeasurable and unexplainable
must be present.
Michelangelo, Creation of Adam
So far, the debate continues.
So what does all of this have to do with polymer clay?
When we apply human technology,
vinyl chloride monomer.
It is very similar in structure to
ethylene gas (C2H4).
The only difference is that one of ethylene's
four hydrogen atoms has been replaced with a chlorine atom (CL).
Note the double atomic bond between the carbons.
This double bond gets broken into a single bond in a reaction
just before the process of polymerization joins
the individual vinyl chloride monomers into huge molecular chains of
poly vinyl chloride,
PVC, the very stuff that
is made of!
we can start with a vessel filled with an organic gas
and by controlling the
and the presence of
cause a phenomena known as
the spontaneous linking of the "many parts" of the small gas molecules into
of hydrocarbons, possibly thousands, millions or even hundreds of millions of units in length.
These newly formed, huge molecules have enormous
and instantly fall to the bottom
of the vessel as a solid substance. This substance might be
high density polyethylene, a
that is so strong and stable that it is commonly used to make
prosthetic parts that can be placed inside of the human body
that do not react with surrounding living tissue.
H H H H H H H H H H H H
| | | | | | | | | | | |
... - C - C - C - C - C - C - C - C - C - C - C - C - ...
| | | | | | | | | | | |
H CL H CL H CL H CL H CL H CL
Now imagine that these polymer chains are millions of units in length.
Not only are these molecules huge and heavy, but they are also
long, kinky threads
that wrap and tangle with each other. If we introduce an oily substance to
these tangled threads, called a
the threads can
against each other much more freely.
A pot full of cooked, wet spaghetti is a pretty good analogy. The noodles are
the polymer threads and the water is the plastisizer. This mixture is
This is the state of soft, uncured polymer clay.
Unlike spaghetti, applying lots of force to the threads is unlikely to break them.
At or near room temperature, PVC molecules are incredibly strong.
Forcing them to move against each other causes them to elongate, spread out over a
larger area and involve a greater number of threads in a tangle.
Hand worked, well conditioned polymer clay is stronger and smoother.
Just the slightest amount of heat
gets the molecules really vibrating, making their movement around
each other even easier. Hand warmed polymer clay gets softer.
Even more heat will cause the plastisizer to
The threads will start to stick to each other and the
whole substance will harden and
into tightly wrapped threads of PVC,
Polymer clay is not alive
but it, and almost every other kind of plastic, is a human modified
organic molecule made entirely of