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What Are Polymers?

If there’s one thing common to humans across millenia, it’s the need to tinker. Since we started exploring the natural world, we have been asking how we can make things better, stronger, or more useful. To that end, the discovery of polymers marked a major turning point.

By definition, polymers are large molecules composed of long chains of repeated smaller molecules (monomers). Polymers can occur in nature (these are known as biopolymers) or be created in labs (synthetic polymers). Prized for their strength, durability, and elasticity, polymers have found uses in human life for thousands of years, starting with a simple rubber ball.

Stretching the human imagination

The first evidence of polymerization can be traced back to 1600 BC in Central America. Mesoamericans combined natural plant latex with juice from morning glory vines to create rubber. They continually played with the process to make the substance bouncier, stretchier, or water resistant, creating the world’s first bouncing balls and waterproof soles.

This early experimentation paved the way for vulcanization, which is the addition of sulfur to natural rubber to increase tensile strength. Patented by Charles Goodyear in 1844, we still depend on this chemical conversion every time we drive our cars or pump up our bike tires.

The term polymer wasn’t coined until nearly 100 years later, when Hermann Staudinger, using rubber as a model, examined the molecular structure of these materials. The formal discovery of polymerization gave way to an explosion of applications that continue to reshape human life.

The rubber meets the road

Where a need existed, synthetic polymers were created to enhance it. The rubber ball’s legacy bounced from plastics to plumbing, from stockings to silly putty. By the mid 20th century, polymeric materials became household names, with teflon, polyester, plexiglass, nylon, and styrofoam.

In 2000, the Nobel prize was awarded to Alan J. Heeger, Alan G. MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa for the discovery and development of conductive polymers. Plastic, until then only used as an insulator, could now be modified to conduct electricity. These new materials were lighter, more workable, less corrosive, and less expensive than metals.

The polymers of today enable some of the most exciting innovations of the 21st century, from wearable technology to 3-D printing:

  • Electronics: In what may be the culmination of decades of semiconductive polymer research, a technique discovered in 2018 screen-prints ultra-flexible, ultra-thin electronics that can stick to human skin. This is considered a holy grail for engineers, with applications that stretch from personal electronics to breakthrough medical devices.
  • Solar power: Conductive polymers have long been an essential component of solar cells. Scientists have now found a way to generate solar power by turning windows themselves into solar cells by embedding photovoltaic films into glass.
  • Biotechnology: Semiconductive polymers enable stunning biotechnology advances, from lifesaving medical devices to artificial nerves. Currently in trials, a new degradable polymer shell to enclose and protect the space between broken bones may soon save limbs after serious traumatic injuries.
  • Drones: Lithium polymer batteries have the dual benefits of decreasing drone weight and increasing air time. Polymer-based dielectric antennas are are up to 35% lighter and more impact-resistant than their metal counterparts.
  • Luminescence: Polymer electroluminescence in OLEDs light up flexible displays and lab-on-a-chip devices. Plus, they’re cheaper and easier to manufacture than traditional LEDs.
  • Printing: Polymers, long used in ink chemistry to improve stability, adhesion, durability and quality, are set to eliminate the use of hydrocarbon ink elements at a lower cost and environmental impact. Speaking of printing, the mainstreaming of 3-D printing offers another starring role for polymers: allowing users to print forms using a range of preformed, processable materials.

Continuing the chain of innovation

Rieke Metals is proud to help companies from a variety of industries continue this legacy of making things better. We offer a catalog of specialty semiconducting polymers, from individual monomers to material science research kits that can help you determine your research and development needs. Additionally, Rieke Metals can develop unique monomers and polymers as well as design or enhance a current route of synthesis to best suit your requirements.

At Rieke Metals, we like to say that we offer Today’s Materials for Tomorrow’s Electronics. Ask us how we can help you continue this long tradition of innovation.