The term “plastic” encompasses a broad range of materials. In addition, each has its own special properties and variations when it comes to properties such as hardness, heat tolerance, and resiliency. Nonetheless, each of them is made of organic condensation or addition polymers and can be made into fibers, films, or objects.
There are 7 main types of plastics, anything from PET, used in food containers, to PVC, used in pipes and flooring. Basically, plastics are everywhere in our modern world.
There are many methods used to classify plastics. The most common method is to classify them according to their polymer backbone. Plastics can, however, also be classified according to the glass transition temperature or thermoplastic versus thermoset.
No matter the classification, all plastics are polymers, which is a long chain of atoms that are bonded to one another. These chains are comprised of monomers, which are repeating molecular units. Most plastics are made of carbon polymers or carbon polymers combined with nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, or chlorine in the backbone, which is the main path linking the units together. Plastic is then customized by “hanging” different molecular groups to the backbone.
History of Plastic
Experiments with plastic have been performed for centuries. In fact, even the Old Testament makes reference to natural materials that were used in the same way as plastic is used today. The exact year when plastic was first created or discovered, however, is a matter of dispute because the term “plastic” is so loosely defined.
The discovery of ebonite, or hard rubber, in 1851, however, had a major impact on the plastics industry. Ebonite was the first thermosetting material to be prepared that also involved its own unique chemical modification of naturally occurring material. Yet, it took several years for ebonite to be used to its potential.
As rubber technology was further being developed, collodion was also being manufactured. Collodion is a cellulose solution that is part of an alcohol-ether mixture. Alexander Parkes, an English inventor, noticed that a solid residue was left after solvent in the collodion evaporated. In his word, this residue was a “hard, horny elastic and waterproof substance.” He later patented the process in 1856 in order to waterproof woven fabrics.
In 1862, a new formulation was unveiled at the Great Exhibition in London. This early plastic was created by dissolving cellulose nitrate in a solvent. After being placed on a heated rolling machine, the mixture could be shaped. The first company to dedicated to manufacturing products from the material, the Parkesine Company, was established in 1866. The company failed, however, in 1868. A year later, the Xylonite Company was opened by Daniel Spill, who was an associate of Parkes. This company also went bankrupt in 1874.
In the United States, plastic compounds were also on the rise. John Wesley Hyatt experimented with cellulose nitrate in the 1860s. In 1865, he became involved in developing a method for creating billiard balls with alternative materials. He developed balls made of ivory dust, cloth, and shellac, which was covered with a collodion coating.
Wyatt and his brother, Isaiah, went on to create a process for producing a material made of camphor and cellulose nitrate in 1870. By 1872, the term “celluloid” had been coined for the product. The brothers went on to establish the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, which was later renamed the American Cellulose Chemical Corporation and was ultimately absorbed by the Celanese Corporation.
By the 1900s, the use of plastic and all of its variations took off. Today, it is the most used material in the United States industry, with nearly every product containing plastic in one way or another.