Polymers - How it works
P OLYMERS OF S ILICON AND C ARBON
Polymers can be defined as large, typically chain-like molecules composed of numerous smaller, repeating units known as monomers. There are numerous varieties of monomers, and since these can be combined in different ways to form polymers, there are even more of the latter.
The name "polymer" does not, in itself, define the materials that polymers contain. A handful of polymers, such as natural sand or synthetic silicone oils and rubbers, are built around silicon. However, the vast majority of polymers center around an element that occupies a position just above silicon on the periodic table: carbon.
The similarities between these two are so great, in fact, that some chemists speak of Group 4 (Group 14 in the IUPAC system) on the periodic table as the "carbon family." Both carbon and silicon have the ability to form long chains of atoms that include bonds with other elements. The heavier elements of this "family," however (most notably lead), are made of atoms too big to form the vast array of chains and compounds for which silicon and carbon are noted.
Indeed, not even silicon—though it is at the center of an enormous range of inorganic compounds—can compete with carbon in its ability to form arrangements of atoms in various shapes and sizes, and hence to participate in an almost limitless array of compounds. The reason, in large part, is that carbon atoms are much smaller than those of silicon, and thus can bond to one another and still leave room for other bonds.
Carbon is such an important element that an entire essay in this book is devoted to it, while a second essay discusses organic chemistry, the study of compounds containing carbon. In the present context, there will be occasional references to non-carbon (that is, silicon) polymers, but the majority of our attention will be devoted to hydrocarbon and hydrocarbon-derivative polymers, which most of us know simply as "plastics."
O RGANIC C HEMISTRY
As explained in the essay on Organic Chemistry, chemists once defined the term "organic" as relating only to living organisms; the materials that make them up; materials derived from them; and substances that come from formerly living organisms. This definition, which more or less represents the everyday meaning of "organic," includes a huge array of life forms and materials: humans, all other animals, insects, plants, microorganisms, and viruses; all substances that make up their structures (for example, blood, DNA, and proteins); all products that come from them (a list diverse enough to encompass everything from urine to honey); and all materials derived from the bodies of organisms that were once alive (paper, for instance, or fossil fuels).
As broad as this definition is, it is not broad enough to represent all the substances addressed by organic chemistry—the study of carbon, its compounds, and their properties. All living or once-living things do contain carbon; however, organic chemistry is also concerned with carbon-containing materials—for instance, the synthetic plastics we will discuss in this essay—that have never been part of a living organism.
It should be noted that while organic chemistry involves only materials that contain carbon, carbon itself is found in other compounds not considered organic: oxides such as carbon dioxide and monoxide, as well as carbonates, most notably calcium carbonate or limestone. In other words, as broad as the meaning of "organic" is, it still does not encompass all substances containing carbon.
As for hydrocarbons, these are chemical compounds whose molecules are made up of nothing but carbon and hydrogen atoms. Every molecule in a hydrocarbon is built upon a "skeleton" of carbon atoms, either in closed rings or in long chains, which are sometimes straight and sometimes branched.
Theoretically, there is no limit to the number of possible hydrocarbons: not only does carbon form itself into seemingly limitless molecular shapes, but hydrogen is a particularly good partner. It is the smallest atom of any element on the periodic table, and therefore it can bond to one of carbon's four valence electrons without getting in the way of the other three.
There are many, many varieties of hydrocarbon, classified generally as aliphatic hydrocarbons (alkanes, alkenes, and alkynes) and aromatic hydrocarbons, the latter being those that contain
Certain hydrocarbons are particularly useful, one example being petroleum, a term that refers to a wide array of hydrocarbons. Among these is an alkane that goes by the name of octane (C 8 H 18 ), a preferred ingredient in gasoline. Hydrocarbons can be combined with various functional groups (an atom or group of atoms whose presence identifies a specific family of compounds) to form hydrocarbon derivatives such as alcohols and esters.