Synthetic Polymers

Softer, Tougher, Bouncier and Wilder:
Polymers Made - or Changed - by People

the polymer machine

Natural Polymers as Inspiration to Make (or Improve) Polymers

Where oh where did anybody get the idea to make a polymer? Well, before people made polymers, they used polymers. You probably already knew that from the natural polymers page! Long, long ago, people from different parts of the world spun flax to make linen cloth, wore animal hides and fur, used silk worms to make silk, or gathered rubbery gunk that oozed out of the rubber tree. Oh, and don't forget lunch! They also ate starchy foods.

Well, people came along who were curious. They wondered what was going on, and why these materials act the way they do. They asked questions, and tried some ways to make the materials better. Sometimes they planned out an experiment, and sometimes luck - or a spill - gave them an answer.

Let's look at some examples of how people learned to change natural polymers so they'd be easier or better to use.

Tanning Leather

Rubber and Vulcanization

Crosslinking rubber makes it stronger and keeps it from melting when it gets hot.

From Poofy to Poof! Changing Cellulose

These polymers started out as cellulose, then became something different.

Cellulose Nitrate
Cellulose Acetate

Paul Lemur making polymers

Making Polymers from Scratch -
The Lab Guys Cook Up Some Goo!!

When we couldn't buy enough silk or rubber that we needed...

Another way that natural polymers influenced synthetic polymers was during shortages, like during World War II when there wasn't enough silk or rubber to go around because we were at war with the countries that produced them. So people figured out ways to make their own polymers similar to these natural products - namely nylon and synthetic rubbers.

Synthetic Rubber:

SBS Rubber

Synthetic Silk:


Other Synthetic Polymers:

Synthetic Fleece: Polyester
Epoxy Resins

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