Science Lesson 5: Biopolymers, Natural Polymers And Synthetic Polymers Explained

07 March 2017

Polymers have for long been an integral part of our everyday lives so much so that examples can be found almost ubiquitously. We generally have an impression that leads us to believe that polymers are simply plastics used for packaging, in household objects and for making fibres, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Polymers are used in all sorts of applications you might not have thought much about. This blog enlightens you about the story behind polymers and how it has evolved ever since to serve several functions across a host of industries.

Origin of polymer science

Humans have taken advantage of the versatility of polymers for centuries in the form of oils, tars, resins and gums. However, it was not until the industrial revolution that the polymer industry began to develop. In fact, the birth of polymer science may be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century. In the 1830s, Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process that transformed the sticky latex of natural rubber into a useful elastomer for tire use. In 1909, Leo Hendrik Baekeland developed a resin from two very common chemicals, phenol and formaldehyde. The reaction between these two chemicals paved the way for the development of a resin, called Bakelite, named after him. It was this resin that served as a harbinger to many of the common polymers that we use today. The word “polymer” is derived from the Greek roots “poly” and “mer,” which put together means “many parts.” Polymeric substances are composed of many chemical units called monomers, which are joined together into large molecular chains consisting of thousands of atoms.

Classification of polymers

On the basis of their origin, polymers can be classified as natural or synthetic polymers. Natural polymers are those polymers that occur in nature and that which are isolated from plant and animal resources. Starch, cellulose, proteins, natural rubber etc. are a few examples of natural polymers. Though they are processed to get the end product, since the basic material comes from a natural source, these polymers are termed as natural polymers. Natural rubber coming from tree latex is essentially a polymer made from isoprene units with a small percentage of impurities in it.

In this context, biopolymers are also significant. There is huge variety of biopolymers such as polysaccharides, polyesters, and polyamides. They are naturally produced by microorganisms. The genetic manipulation of microorganisms makes way for enormous potential for the biotechnological production of biopolymers with tailored properties suitable for high-value medical application such as tissue engineering and drug delivery.

Synthetic polymers, as their name indicates, are synthesized in the laboratory or factory through a series of chemical reactions from low molecular weight compounds. From the functional point of view they can be classified into four main categories: thermoplastics, thermosets, elastomers and synthetic fibres. Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) is one such thermoplastic produced by the polymerization of the monomer, methyl methacrylate (MMA). PMMA is commonly known as acrylic plastic and lends its properties to a variety of consumer product applications. Being both a thermoplastic and transparent plastic, acrylic is used extensively in the automotive industry in trunk release handles, master cylinder, and dashboard lighting. Consumer products that have a constituent element of acrylic plastic include aquariums, motorcycle helmet lenses, paint, furniture, picture framing, and umbrella clamps, among others.

Some of the other synthetic polymers that we use in our everyday life include Nylons, used in fabrics and textiles, Teflon, used in non-stick pans and Polyvinyl Chloride, used in pipes.

As a leading manufacturer of SUMIPEX® PMMA polymer, Sumitomo Chemical is happy to assist you in understanding its properties as a synthetic polymer. To know more, reach out to us here.