Polymer History


Polymers, either synthetic or natural, are present in every aspect of our daily lives. Table 1 shows brief history of polymer          development. Many modern functional materials, pharmaceutical equipments, electronic devices, automobile parts, etc., have   polymeric components. Polymers are replacing traditional materials because of their low cost and special applications. Figure 1 shows the increment of the world-wide production of polymers from 1950 to 2002.

Table 1. The history of polymers in brief.

19th century


Natural polymer and derivatives (vulcanized rubber, celluloid)



 Concept of macromolecules postulated by Staudinger


 First systematic synthesis of polymers
 Synthesis of polyamides (nylon)by Carothers at DuPont
 Discovery of polyethylene at ICI (Fawcett and Gibson)


 Synthetic rubbers and synthetic fibers


Stereospecific polymerizations by Ziegler and Natta, the birth of polypropylene
 Discovery of polymer single crystals (keller, fischer, Till)
 Development of polycarbonate


Discovery of PPO at GE by Hay and commercialization of PPO/PS blends (Noryl)


Liquid-crystalline polymers


 Super strong fibers (Aramid, polyethylene)
 Functional polymers (conductive, light-emitting); Metallocene-based catalysts.


 Novel polyolefins hybrid systems (polymerlceramic, polymer/metals), Nature-inspired catalysts, Living free radical polymerization.


Synthesis of polymers by bacteria and plants


Figure 1. World-wide production of crude steel and polymers (source www.vke.de)

Applications of Polymers [1]


 Automotive industry Motorists want high-performing cars combined with reliability, safety, comfort, competitive pricing, fuel         efficiency, and, increasingly, reassurance about the impact on the environment. Lightweight polymeric materials. Are increasingly used in this sector (Daimler Benz's Smart is a nice example), also contributing to a 10% reduction in passenger fuel consumption across Europe.

Building and construction Polymeric materials are used in the building and construction sector, for example for insulation, piping, and window frames. In 2002 this sector accounted for 17.6% of the total polymer consumption.

Electrical and electronic industry Many applications in this field arise from newly designed polymeric materials, for example for polymeric solar cells and holographic films. It is interesting to note that, while the number of applications in this field is increasing, the weight of the polymers used per unit is decreasing.

Packaging The packaging sector remains the largest consumer of synthetic polymers, approximately 38% of the total market. This is mainly due to. the fact that these materials are lightweight, flexible, and easy to process, and are therefore increasingly being substituted for other materials. Although polymer packaging ranks first in terms of units sold, it is only third if judged on weight.

Agriculture As agricultural applications account for about 2.5% of the total of synthetic polymers consumed in Europe, they play only a marginal role. Irrigation and drainage systems provide effective solutions to crop growing, and polymeric films and greenhouses can increase horticultural production substantially. The use of so called "super absorbers" for increased irrigation efficiency in arid areas can be considered an important emerging market.

Tables 2 and 3 present some polymers with their applications.


Table. 2. Applications for the major thermoplastics [2].





Low density polyethylene (LDPE )

 Pallet and agricultural film, bags, toys, coatings, containers, pipes

Polypropylene (PP)

 Film, battery cases, microwave-proof containers, crates, automotive parts, electrical components

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Window frames, pipes, flooring, wallpaper, bottles, cling film, toys, guttering, cable insulation, credit cards, medical products

High density polyethylene (HDPE)

 Containers, toys, house wares, industrial wrappings and films, pipes

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)

 Bottles, textile fibers, film food packaging

Polystyrene (PS/EPS)

 Electrical appliances, thermal insulation, tape cassettes, cups and plates, toys

Polyamide (PA)

Film for food packaging (oil, cheese, "boil-in-bag"), high-temperature engineering applications, textile fibers

Styrene copolymers (ABS/SAN)

 General appliance moldings

Polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA)

 Transparent all-weather sheet, electrical insulators, bathroom units, automotive parts

Table. 3. Applications for the major thermosets [2].




 Polyurethane (PU)

 Coatings, finishes, cushions, mattresses, vehicle seats


 General appliance moldings, adhesives, appliances, automotive parts, electrical components

 Epoxy resins

Adhesives, automotive components, E&E components, sports equipment, boats

The development of new polymers and the modification and enhancement of the old ones are goals of many researchers in both industry and academia. A breadth of knowledge has been built over the years which involve aspects of organic chemistry, physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, physics, chemical and mechanical engineering. Those sciences are integrated to support the in-depth analysis of polymer synthesis, structure, kinetics, characterization, and processing in order to relate to the performance of the polymer in end use. If polymer chains are completely characterized and the structural basis of its properties are known, the polymerization reaction can be optimized and controlled to produce the optimum properties from a particular chemical system.

[1] Handbook of polymer reaction engineering (2005)

[2] Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe. (2002)