What is Polymer Chemistry?

Charles K. Furr

Polymer chemistry is the study and manipulation of synthetic and organic chemical substances known as polymers. A polymer is a repetitive chain of molecules that join to form what is called a macromolecule. Polymers are versatile substances, having the various properties of flexibility, lightness, hardness, and durability. Ways are found by polymer chemists to isolate and develop these properties. Additionally, they identify unique conductive and chemical properties of given polymers for industrial and medical uses.

Industrial firms employ chemists who specialize in developing new polymers for commercial applications.
Industrial firms employ chemists who specialize in developing new polymers for commercial applications.

In one form or another, this branch of chemistry has been present in the realm of science since the mid-19th century. Nitrocellulose, an early polymer, was developed using the research of Henri Braconnot and Christian Schönbein, respectively. During the following years, nitrocellulose and its derivatives were used in a variety of ways, including as an effective wound dressing during the American Civil War.

Kevlar® fabric, which was developed by polymer chemists.
Kevlar® fabric, which was developed by polymer chemists.

The first manufacturing plant for synthetic fiber was opened in 1884 by a French industrialist named Hilaire de Chardonnet. It produced a polymer fabric called viscose rayon, which was used as a cheaper substitute for silk. Since that time, the field of polymer chemistry has expanded greatly, reaching a climax in the early 20th century with the development of Kevlar® and nylon. The development of these materials resulted in a great amount of interest which continues to this day. Several thousands of substances with practical applications have been produced since the early 20th century as a result of advances in polymer chemistry.

Usage of polymers is widespread in modern society, providing essential chemical components of many of the objects people use on a daily basis. Tires, plastic bags, compact discs, and disposable contact lenses all contain materials developed by this field of science. Every year, more and more items containing synthetic and organic polymers are introduced into the market. Since most polymers are synthetic, products utilizing them generally require smaller amounts of nonrenewable resources when compared to their counterparts made of other materials.

Polymer chemistry research is a multi-billion US Dollar industry in and of itself. This is due to its extensive applicability in almost every industrial and scientific field. Often a need that may be met by polymers is first identified, and is then followed by the funding to develop a polymer that is fit for that specific purpose. Once the polymer is developed, it can then be explored by polymer chemists to find other possible applications, as well as derivatives that may have their own uses.

Polymer chemists create the synthetic fibers used in a variety of products today.
Polymer chemists create the synthetic fibers used in a variety of products today.

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Discussion Comments


Is acrylic paint a type of polymer?


@AnnBoleyn - There actually are scientists that develop biodegradable polymers. At the University of Massachusetts Lowell is the Center for Biodegradable Polymer Research.

Not only are they doing research, but part of their purpose is to educate officials and politicians regarding creating government policies affecting this technology.

So many people and countries are concerned about the environment that I am sure this field will continue to grow.


@AnnBoleyn - I don't think it really counts as tampering - rather it's more that natural substances are used to further their potential to create polymers. It's a shame that polymers that are plastics generally don't degrade very well. I can see how some uses are valid enough, such as Kevlar vests, which serve an important purpose, but many other plastic products only have a single and very short life span.


The concept of polymer science makes sense to me but reading about combining organic and synthetic materials is quite fascinating. I wonder how recyclable these new substances are or how much longer they take to decompose when compared to the original organic source. Could it be construed as tampering with nature (albeit, for the greater good)?

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