Polymers – The Passage Through Time

By: Mac Thomsan

What is Polymer
Think of polymer as the interlinking of many units. It can be likened to the paper garland made of interlinked pieces of papers. Only in the case of polymers, the interlinking units are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and/or silicon molecules. Each link of the chain is called the "mer" or basic unit, hence the name polymer.

Polymers are thus long chains of repeating chemical units, or monomers. The chemical structures of the resultant molecule may be linear, cyclic or branched. When one monomer is linked to other monomers of its type, the resultant product is termed a homopolymer. Polyethylene, polystyrene and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) are some homopolymers.

If more than one type of monomers are interlinked, they are called copolymers (or dipolymers). The monomers in this case are arranged in statistical, random or alternating way. Propylene and fluorocarbon elastomers (vinylidene fluoride and hexafluoropropylene) are some of the examples of this type of polymer.

Terpolymers are the resultant product when three types of monomer unit are linked together. Examples are ethylene - propylene - diene (EPDM) and specialty fluorocarbon grades.

Since time immemorial

Natural polymers such as tar and shellac, tortoise shell and horns, tree saps that produce amber and latex always existed. In earlier times these polymers were processed with heat and pressure into useful articles like hair ornaments and jewelry.

The manual manipulation of the natural polymers and the development of completely synthetic polymers started quite later. Let’s see how.

Early Developments

Chemical modification of natural polymers stated during the 1800s. It led to the development of many useful materials. The most famous of these were vulcanized rubber, gun cotton, and celluloid.

The 1900s

When Hermann Staudinger, a German scientist, proposed in the 1920s that large molecules made up of many thousands of atoms is a possibility, he was ridiculed by many other scientists. The common wisdom was that the structures of such materials have many small molecules held together by an unknown force. The first lab produced polymer was Bakelite in 1909 and was soon followed by the first synthetic fiber, rayon, which was developed in 1911.

World Wars

Prior to World Wars, natural substances were amply available. Once the world went to war, the natural sources of latex, wool, silk, and other materials were difficult to come by. This made the world look for an alternate, the synthetic polymer.

During this time period, we saw the use of nylon, acrylic, neoprene, SBR, polyethylene, and many more polymers take the place of natural materials that were no longer available.

The scientists of Imperial Chemical Industries developed a small amount of a white, waxy substance as a result of reaction between organic molecules, ethylene (now known as ethene) and benzaldehyde, at very high temperature and pressure. This substance was poly(ethene) or polythene.

The new material had many properties which made it indispensable such as:

It could be formed and reformed into different shapes.
It was tough and hard wearing.
It was water-proof.
It was insulating to electricity.

It was discovered in the 1930s and was soon being used in the Second World War to insulate the many meters of cables needed for the vital radar equipment used by the British.


The development of HDPE (high-density polyethene) kind of revolutionized the polymer industry. Karl Zeigler in Mülheim, Germany in 1950 discovered the catalyzed method of producing it. The boom in petrochemical industry post World War II supplied ample raw material for it.

The discovery of HDPE meant that the world would never be the same again as more and more uses for this plastic were discovered.

Nylon and Lycra

The age of polymers really dawned with nylon and lycra. Giulio Natta in Milan created poly(propene), Wallace Carothers in the US created Nylon. Moreover, poly(urethane)s, used in Lycra and polyesters, was invented which is a very important raw material for the clothing industry.

The Modern Era

New developments and advances are constantly being made and every year there are new patents for novel molecules which promise much. These developments saw the innovations like leather finishes, water based coatings, flame retardant polymers, polyurethane dispersions etc. take place. Only time will tell how we will come to depend even more on these compounds.
In fact the history of polymers is the history of what we call the modern way of living. Many companies are at the forefront of bringing the benefits of this innovation to the people.

Starting from Imperial Chemical Industries which invented the polymers to companies such as Hauthaway Corporation, which has for the last 155 years, been in the business of providing various applications of polymers such as leather finishes, water based coatings, flame retardant polymers, polyurethane dispersions etc. – polymers have come a long way.

Banking on their rich lineage, companies like Hauthaway have today moved wholly into employing highly sophisticated technologies to develop innovative product lines. With polymers being an inseparable part of modern life, the way is only upward for companies in this industry.

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Mac Thomsan is a chemical engineer with successful career in polymer industry. His area of expertise is in polymers providing leather finishes and flame retardant polymers.

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