Industrial significance of polymer science

During the late 19th century, cellulose derivatives were developed as artificial substitutes for silk and ivory. However, the real breakthrough in industrial production occurred in 1908, when Leo Hendrik Baekeland developed phenolic resins as the first true synthetic polymer, which became known as Bakelite [link to our bakelite]. Since then, there has been a very fruitful cross-fertilization between technical progress and advances in polymer sciences. The production of polymers increased from 15 million tons in 1965 to more than 150 million tons in 1996, including 100 million tons of thermoplastics, 18 million tons of synthetic fibers, 22 million tons of thermosets, and 10 million tons of elastomers. More than 1 million tons of thermoplastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are produced every year.

No other materials can match the versatility of polymeric materials. Because of their molecular architectures, they can variously be stiff, soft, or elastic, permeable or impermeable, and transparent or opaque. Moreover, polymers are relatively inexpensive and can be readily processed by injection molding, blow molding, extrusion, spinning, casting, or compression molding. Because of their versatility, synthetic polymers have myriad applications. Some are very familiar: appliances, packaging, telephones, auto parts, and fabrics. Others are less visible, including circuit boards, composites for space ships, and medical uses such as absorbable sutures and implant materials.

Many polymeric materials can be readily recycled by remolding recycled polymer pellets or by heating the polymer to recover the feedstock. For example, commodity polyolefins, such as polypropylene, are cracked at temperatures above 400 C to form synthetic oil and gas, which can replace natural oil and gas in refineries and energy production. Moreover, light polymeric materials can save weight in automotive construction, thus reducing fuel consumption and exhaust emission. As thermal insulators, polymer foams help to conserve energy. The petroleum used to make polymers, which is 4% of all consumption, saves more than 10% of all the petroleum used because of the improved insulation and weight-reduction in automotive construction made possible by these polymers. Polymeric materials are prime examples of environmentally friendly materials that help protect fossil resources for future generations.


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Hermann Staudinger: Father of macromolecular chemistry | Staudinger's life and career | Political concerns
Industrial significance of polymer science | Macromolecules: A bridge between material sciences and life sciences
Hermann Staudinger's life and achievements | Landmark designation

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