Painting In Space

Polymer Clay works
by James Lehman

What Is Polymer?

Painting In Space
Polymer Clay



What Is Polymer?

The word polymer does not refer to a specific substance, but rather a phenomena of molecular structure 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 many parts.

"Carbon-based-life-form" isn't just a science fiction phrase!
With the exception of carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and a group of minerals called carbonates, every molecule that contains carbon is an organic molecule. The existence of all organic molecules is inherently connected to the force of life and all life depends entirely on every plant's ability to form organic molecules from carbon dioxide, water and energy from the Sun!

Carbon is a very special element.
As a single atom, it has four places to bond with other atoms to form compounds. In real three dimensional space, these four bonds are arranged as the points of a tetrahedron, a three sided pyramid.


Other atoms may be connected to these four points.


This compound of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms is methane gas (CH4).

Carbon atoms bond to each other very well!

This compound of two carbon atoms and six hydrogen atoms is ethane gas (C2H6). It is also a simple example of a molecule made of parts. It is two methane molecules stuck together (sort of).

This is hexane (C6H14). It has six carbon atoms.

Any number of carbon atoms can be found stuck together this way. The first ten hydrocarbons, 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 petrochemicals. They are all found in crude oil!

The first four are gasses at normal atmospheric pressure, the next bunch are volatile liquids. They are all very flammable and commonly used as fuel. When seventeen or more carbons are found together in a hydrocarbon chain it is a solid material called paraffin wax.

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 Earth millions of years ago. It has no food value to any living thing, but it is still 100% organic material. All of the atomic bonds 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 lot of heat.

There is only one way carbon returns to organic molecules.
Living plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water from the soil. and with the energy from the Sun, in a process called photosynthesis, they recombine the elements into newly formed organic molecules.

Animals and 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 sugars and starches. Carbohydrates are used as fuel and fuel storage inside every cell in every living thing.

H   H   H   OH  H   H
|   |   |   |   |   |
H - C - C - C - C - C - C = O
|   |   |   |   |
OH  OH  OH  H   OH
This is a flat representation of the glucose molecule. Glucose is the most important carbohydrate to all living organisms because of the central role it plays in metabolism, the generation of life giving energy from chemical reactions.

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 plant life and therefore the single most common, by mass, organic polymer molecule on Earth. A puff of natural cotton is an example of nearly pure cellulose. Wood is no less than 70% cellulose. Rayon, Cellophane and Celluloid 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 string of tetrahedrons together, point to point, there is no way to form a straight line. The picture of hexane above is a zigzag 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 rotate. 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 that wrap and twist 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. DNA 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:

Mechanism 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 vital force 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,
we can start with a vessel filled with an organic gas and by controlling the temperature, pressure and the presence of catalysts, cause a phenomena known as polymerization, the spontaneous linking of the "many parts" of the small gas molecules into huge chains of hydrocarbons, possibly thousands, millions or even hundreds of millions of units in length. These newly formed, huge molecules have enormous atomic mass and instantly fall to the bottom of the vessel as a solid substance. This substance might be high density polyethylene, a synthetic plastic 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
|   |
C = C
|   |
H   CL
This is 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 polymer clay is made of!

      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 plastisizer, or diluent, the threads can slip and slide 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 almost liquid. 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 evaporate. The threads will start to stick to each other and the whole substance will harden and fuse into tightly wrapped threads of PVC, hard plastic.

Polymer clay is not alive
but it, and almost every other kind of plastic, is a human modified organic molecule made entirely of the-stuff-of-life.