Plastic-Polymer: Understanding Its Properties and Applications

Discover the versatile role of plastic polymers in construction, including their types, applications, and benefits.

Key takeaways:

  • Polymers are large molecules made of repeated subunits called monomers.
  • Polymers can be natural or synthetic and have diverse characteristics.
  • Polymers in construction can be lightweight, strong, and resistant.
  • Polymers are classified based on origin, polymerization process, and behavior when heated.
  • Natural and synthetic polymers both play essential roles in construction.

What You Will Learn

What Is Polymer?

what is polymer

Polymers are large molecules composed of repeated subunits called monomers, which bond together to form long chains. Think of a polymer as a freight train with countless cars connected; each car represents a monomer and the entire train signifies the polymer chain. These molecular chains can vary in length and complexity, leading to a diverse range of materials with different characteristics.

There are two main categories of polymers based on their origin: natural and synthetic. Natural polymers, such as cellulose, proteins, and DNA, are found in living organisms and have been essential to life for centuries. Synthetic polymers, on the other hand, are engineered by humans and include familiar materials like plastics, nylon, and silicone.

The versatility of polymers is astounding. They can be engineered to be lightweight, yet strong, resistant to heat, chemicals, and impacts, which makes them highly adaptable for various uses. This adaptability is why polymers are so pervasive in construction applications, where materials must often meet strict safety and durability standards.


Polymers are long chains of molecules, with each link in the chain consisting of smaller units called monomers. These monomers can be natural, such as those found in rubber, or synthetic, like those in nylon. By linking monomers in various ways, a vast array of polymers with different properties can be produced. The process of forming polymers is known as polymerization.

In daily life, polymers appear in various forms and uses. Proteins, DNA, and cellulose are examples of naturally occurring polymers integral to biological systems. On the other hand, synthetic polymers include materials like polyethylene and polystyrene, commonly used in packaging, construction, and consumer goods.

Because of their structure, polymers exhibit unique properties. They may be pliable or rigid, resistant to heat and chemicals, and can be electrical insulators. This flexibility in characteristics allows for tailored solutions in construction applications, from sturdy pipes to insulating foam.

When these chains of polymers are manipulated to create materials we use, they are often referred to as plastics. Not all plastics are polymers, and not all polymers are plastics, but plastics are the most familiar form of synthetic polymers in our everyday experience.

Classification of Polymers

Polymers are massive, chain-like molecules made up of repeating units called monomers. These macromolecules fall into different categories based on their origin or how they are made.

Natural polymers such as proteins, cellulose, and rubber exist in living organisms and are integral to biological functions and structures. Synthetic polymers are human-made and include plastics like polyethylene used in packaging and polystyrene found in insulation materials.

They can also be classified by their polymerization process: addition (where monomers join to form a polymer without by-products) and condensation (where monomers link to form a polymer with by-products like water).

Thermoplastics and thermosetting plastics represent another key categorization based on behavior when heated. Thermoplastics soften upon heating and can be reshaped, while thermosetting plastics undergo a chemical change when heated forming a rigid structure that does not soften upon reheating.

Elastomers, durable and elastic materials like silicone, have unique properties that allow them to resume their normal shape after being stretched or compressed, making them ideal for products like tires.

Finally, biodegradable polymers, a growing focus in environmental sustainability, are designed to break down over time reducing their lasting footprint. Each class of polymer offers distinct traits that determine its suitability for specific applications in construction and beyond.

Natural Vs. Synthetic Polymers

Polymers can be sourced from our environment or crafted by human ingenuity. Natural polymers exist as essential biological components such as cellulose in plants and protein in animal tissue. They are intrinsic to nature’s framework, supporting various life processes.

On the flip side, synthetic polymers, such as nylon and polystyrene, are human-made through polymerization processes. Researchers design them to exhibit specific attributes, making them invaluable in construction for their tailored functionality — including enhanced strength, flexibility, and resistance to chemicals and weather.

While natural polymers are biodegradable and harmonize with the ecosystem, synthetic varieties offer longevity and are often recycled to minimize waste. Both types have carved out indispensable roles within the construction sphere, demonstrating their unique contributions to modern building practices.

What Are the Properties and Structures of Polymer and Plastic?

Polymers are remarkable for their wide array of properties that can be finely tuned based on their makeup and structure. At the molecular level, polymers consist of long chains of repeating units, which can branch out or cross-link, affecting the material’s strength and flexibility. These changes at the microscopic level have a direct impact on the macroscopic properties we can observe and feel.

When it comes to plastics, which are a type of synthetic polymer, their properties such as transparency, electrical conductivity, and heat resistance make them ideal for a plethora of applications in construction. For instance, polycarbonate is known for its clarity and toughness, making it a candidate for transparent roofing materials, while polyvinyl chloride (PVC) offers excellent durability and is frequently used for piping and window frames.

The mechanical properties of polymers—how they respond to forces—are also critical in construction. Elasticity, toughness, and tensile strength dictate how a plastic can be used structurally. Some, like polyethylene, exhibit high impact resistance, absorbing shocks without breaking, an asset for materials used in high-use or high-impact environments.

The inherent properties of polymers and plastics propose vast possibilities, shaping the way we construct, insulate, and even design our living spaces. Understanding the bridge from molecular structure to tangible properties unlocks the potential to choose the right plastic for the right architectural purpose.

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