What Is Lucite®?

Emma G.

Lucite® is the trademarked name for a type of acrylic plastic distributed by the Lucite International Company. It is a synthetic organic compound that is formed in a laboratory using a polymerization process. Lucite® can be tinted to almost any color. It can be formed into sheets or cast to a custom shape in a mold. Due to its strength and durability, it is often used in the manufacturing and technology industries to create everything from aircraft canopies to LCD monitors.

A LCD monitor made with Lucite®.
A LCD monitor made with Lucite®.

To create Lucite® and other Plexiglas materials, chemists use an organic compound called methyl methacrylate (MMA). The small molecules of MMA are joined together in a repeating pattern to create large molecular chains in a process known as polymerization. The resulting polymer is callyed polymethyl methacrylate, which is the basic building block of Lucite®. The strength, color, and other properties of a polymer are determined by two factors, the base molecules being joined and the type of bond used to join them. Though polymerization is best known for its role in creating plastics, it is also used to make a range of other materials, including dishwasher detergent and stretchable fabrics.

Serious respiratory health problems may result if a person inhales MMA, a compound used to create Lucite.
Serious respiratory health problems may result if a person inhales MMA, a compound used to create Lucite.

The material that results from MMA polymerization is naturally colorless and transparent, which makes it ideal for use in windshields, lenses, and screens. Manufacturers may choose to introduce other materials into the polymer to make the Lucite® opaque. Opaque Lucite® can be used for lampshades or decorative lighting panels. The natural colorlessness of Lucite® also allows it to be tinted. Tinting results in clear, vibrant colors that will not fade, which are perfect for use in plastic furniture or siding for buildings.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States has deemed MMA to be a hazardous substance. When it is inhaled or allowed to contact the eyes mouth or skin, serious respiratory health problems can result. Once MMA has been processed into a polymer, most or all of these dangerous effects disappear. Most people who suffer side effects from MMA are industrial or scientific workers who may be exposed to it in its untreated form.

The Lucite International Company is the leading producer of MMA in the world. It provided more than 25 percent of the world supply of MMA in 2010. The company began as a joint venture of Dupont and ICI acrylics. By 2010, it had 14 manufacturing sites throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.

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