Plastics are polymers derived from petroleum products. They are a perfect example of designing better, cheaper, and completely human-made materials. Plastics are inspired by nature, i.e., natural polymers, but are completely synthetic.
Most polymers are made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms, and many plastics are as well. Polymers that contain hydrogen and carbon atoms are called hydrocarbons. Carbon atoms can form single bonds to four other atoms. If the carbon atoms in a polymer are bound to four other atoms the polymer is referred to as a saturated hydrocarbon. If on the other hand, the carbon atom is not bound to four other atoms it will typically form double or triple bonds, as needed, with another carbon atom. In this case, the polymer is referred to as an unsaturated hydrocarbon. This distinction is important as unsaturated polymers are generally unstable and more reactive than their saturated cousins.
Around 1850 billiards was becoming increasingly popular, but there was a problem. The balls were made of ivory, which is in very limited supply and is, thus, very expensive. Not to mention it requires the killing of elephants to obtain. In 1956, the first human-made plastic (Parkesine) was patented by Alexander Parkes from Birmingham, England. Often called synthetic ivory it was composed of nitrocellulose – cellulose treated with nitric acid and a solvent. It was the first thermoplastic, but it failed as a commercial product due to poor product quality control. The following 10-minute video discusses the development of polymers to replace ivory billiard balls, the science behind some of the most-used plastics, and some examples of thermoplastic and thermosetting polymers.
After watching this video, please proceed to the first (of two) reading assignments for this lesson.