There are four basic polymer structures which are shown in the figure below. In practice, some polymers might contain a mixture of the various basic structures. The four basic polymer structures are linear, branched, crosslinked, and networked.
Linear polymers resemble ‘spaghetti’ with long chains. The long chains are typically held together by the weaker van der Waals or hydrogen bonding. Since these bonding types are relatively easy to break with heat, linear polymers are typically thermoplastic. Heat breaks the bonds between the long chains allowing the chains to flow past each other, allowing the material to be remolded. Upon cooling the bonds between the long chains reform, i.e., the polymer hardens.
Branched polymers resemble linear polymers with the addition of shorter chains hanging from the spaghetti backbone. Since these shorter chains can interfere with efficient packing of the polymers, branched polymers tend to be less dense than similar linear polymers. Since the short chains do not bridge from one longer backbone to another, heat will typically break the bonds between the branched polymer chains and allow the polymer to be a thermoplastic, although there are some very complex branched polymers that resist this ‘melting’ and thus break up (becoming hard in the process) before softening, i.e., they are thermosetting.
Crosslinked polymers resemble ladders. The chains link from one backbone to another. So, unlike linear polymers which are held together by weaker van der Waals forces, crosslinked polymers are tied together via covalent bonding. This much stronger bond makes most crosslinked polymers thermosetting, with only a few exceptions to the rule: crosslinked polymers that happen to break their crosslinks at relatively low temperatures.
Networked polymers are complex polymers that are heavily linked to form a complex network of three-dimensional linkages. These polymers are nearly impossible to soften when heating without degrading the underlying polymer structure and are thus thermosetting polymers.
Monomers do not have to be of a single atom type, but when referring to a specific monomer it is understood to be of the same composition structure. When building a polymer from two distinct monomers, those polymers are referred to as copolymers. Next, we will look at how copolymers are classified.
If a chemist is synthesizing a polymer utilizing two distinct starting monomers there are several possible structures, as shown in the figure below. The four basic structures are random, alternating, block, and graft. If the two monomers are randomly ordered then the copolymer is, not surprisingly, referred to as a random copolymer. In an alternating copolymer, each monomer is alternated with the other to form an ABABABA… pattern. In block copolymers, more complex repeating structures are possible, for example AAABBBAAABBBAAA… Graft copolymers are created by attaching chains of a second type of monomer on the backbone chain of a first monomer type.
Before we move on to the many uses of polymers, watch this four-minute video which will introduce the uses of polymers.
Now that you have watched this video, please proceed to the second (of two) reading assignments for this lesson.