Polymer Definition: Understanding the Basics of Polymers

This comprehensive guide elucidates what polymers are, highlighting their unique properties, types, and crucial role they play in the world of construction.

Key takeaways:

  • Polymers are macromolecules composed of repeating monomers.
  • Common examples of polymers include polyethylene, polystyrene, and PVC.
  • Polymers have unique chemical properties, such as molecular weight and thermal stability.
  • Polymers are used in insulation, piping, paints, flooring, and more.
  • Polymers are subject to degradation over time, including biodegradation and thermal degradation.

What You Will Learn



Polymers are macromolecules composed of repeating structural units called monomers, which are connected by covalent chemical bonds. Imagine them as long chains or networks where each link represents a monomer. These chains can vary in length, resulting in a wide range of properties.

Natural polymers include DNA and proteins, essential to life, while synthetic polymers include plastics like polyethylene, commonly used in packaging. The structure of polymers, which can be linear, branched, or cross-linked, determines their strength, elasticity, and durability. This variety in structure and composition is what makes polymers incredibly versatile and useful in various applications.

Common Examples

Polymers are ubiquitous in daily life, and you’re likely familiar with many of them. Consider polyethylene, the most produced plastic around the globe, utilized to make shopping bags and plastic bottles.

Polystyrene is another household name, forming products like foam cups and insulation materials.

Then there’s polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which you’ll find in pipes, cable insulation, and vinyl records.

Natural rubber, from rubber trees, is also a polymer, vital for car tires and footwear.

Other common examples include nylon, known for its role in textiles and ropes, and polypropylene, found in automotive parts and food containers.

These materials exemplify the diversity and practicality of polymers in everyday objects.

Chemical Properties

Polymers are characterized by their unique chemical properties, which account for their widespread use and versatility. At the molecular level, polymers consist of long chains of repeating units, known as monomers, which are linked together by covalent bonds. This structure gives rise to several important chemical properties:

1. Molecular weight: Polymers have a range of molecular weights, affecting their strength, melting temperature, and solubility.

2. Glass transition temperature (Tg): This is the temperature below which the polymer behaves as a glassy, rigid material, and above which it becomes soft and flexible.

3. Crystallinity: Some polymers can form ordered, crystalline regions, while others remain amorphous. The degree of crystallinity influences the material’s mechanical properties, such as stiffness and tensile strength.

4. Chemical resistance: Many polymers resist degradation when exposed to chemicals, making them ideal for applications that require durability against harsh substances.

5. Thermal stability: Thermal stability reflects a polymer’s ability to maintain its integrity under high temperatures, with some polymers withstanding heat better than others.

6. Reactivity: Functional groups within the polymer’s structure can react with other chemicals, allowing modification of the polymer or the formation of composites with enhanced properties.


In everyday life, polymers play an indispensable role due to their unique characteristics, such as flexibility, durability, and resistance to moisture and chemicals. These versatile materials form the backbone of numerous construction materials, including:

  • Insulation: Expanded polystyrene and polyurethane foams keep buildings warm in the winter and cool in the summer, dramatically improving energy efficiency.
  • Piping: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is widely used for water pipes due to its long lifespan and resistance to corrosion and biological growth.
  • Paints and finishes: Acrylic and epoxy-based polymers provide protective and aesthetic coatings that withstand the elements and daily wear and tear.
  • Flooring: Resilient vinyl flooring offers durability and ease of maintenance, while polypropylene is a popular choice for carpet fibers in commercial settings.
  • Sealants and adhesives: Silicone sealants ensure airtight and watertight seals, while polymer-based adhesives like epoxies bond a variety of surfaces with exceptional strength.
  • Roofing: Thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) roofing membranes deliver waterproof solutions that are both lightweight and reflective.
  • Composite materials: Glass or carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (GFRP/CFRP) create strong, lightweight components for structural applications and facade panels.

Through these applications, polymers not only contribute to the functionality and longevity of construction projects but also enhance their aesthetic appeal. Their adaptability opens up new possibilities for innovative design and sustainable construction practices.


Polymers, like all materials, are subject to degradation over time, which can affect their properties and lifespan. Exposure to UV radiation, oxygen, chemicals, and mechanical stress can break down polymer chains, leading to a loss of strength and elasticity.

Biodegradation is another form of degradation where biological organisms, such as bacteria and fungi, break down polymers, often resulting in a complete decomposition into water, CO2, methane, and biomass. This process is slower for synthetic polymers compared to natural ones, hence the growing interest in developing biodegradable plastics.

Thermal degradation occurs at high temperatures as polymer chains break apart, typically resulting in a change in color, a decrease in molecular weight, and a release of gases. Antioxidants and stabilizers are often added to polymers to slow down the degradation process and extend the material’s life.


What is a polymer simple definition?

A polymer is a large molecule composed of many repeated subunits, known as monomers, chemically linked together in a chain-like structure.

Which is an example of a polymer?

An example of a polymer is cellulose.

Is polymer just plastic?

No, a polymer is not just plastic; while all plastics are polymers, not all polymers are plastics as they include a range of natural substances as well.

What are the 4 types of polymers?

The four types of polymers are natural, synthetic, addition, and condensation polymers.

What are the common applications of polymers in construction?

Polymers in construction are commonly used in insulation, pipes, paint, adhesives, sealants, and as a part of concrete and glass additives.

How are polymers synthesized for industrial use?

Polymers are synthesized for industrial use primarily through chemical reactions involving monomers, which when subjected to heat or pressure, bond together to form long chains of repeating units.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using polymers in construction?

The advantages of using polymers in construction include their light weight, high durability, corrosion resistance, and design flexibility, while the disadvantages include their susceptibility to UV degradation, temperature sensitivity, and environmental impact due to non-biodegradability.

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