Apr 18, 2013

Plastics

If we identify various periods in history in terms of the most widely used materials - as archaeologists refer to the Bronze and Iron Ages - the 20th century could fairly be called the Plastic Age. Although plastics did not become pervasive until after World War II, they had become quite familiar many years earlier.

Plastics, materials made up of large, organic (carbon-containing) molecules that can be formed into a variety of products. The molecules that compose plastics are long carbon chains that give plastics many of their useful properties. In general, materials that are made up of long, chainlike molecules are called polymers. The word plastic is derived from the words plasticus (Latin for “capable of molding”) and plastikos (Greek “to mold,” or “fit for molding”). Plastics can be made hard as stone, strong as steel, transparent as glass, light as wood, and elastic as rubber. Plastics are also lightweight, waterproof, chemical resistant, and produced in almost any color. More than 50 families of plastics have been produced, and new types are currently under development.

Like metals, plastics come in a variety of grades. For instance, nylons are plastics that are separated by different properties, costs, and the manufacturing processes used to produce them. Also like metals, some plastics can be alloyed, or blended, to combine the advantages possessed by several different plastics. For example, some types of impact-resistant (shatterproof) plastics and heat-resistant plastics are made by blending different plastics together.

Plastics are moldable, synthetic (chemically-fabricated) materials derived mostly from fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, or natural gas. The raw forms of other materials, such as glass, metals, and clay, are also moldable. The key difference between these materials and plastics is that plastics consist of long molecules that give plastics many of their unique properties, while glass, metals, and clay consist of short molecules. (Adapted from ‘Science: A History of Discovery in the Twentieth Century’, and Encarta Encyclopedia)