Leo Hendrik Baekeland was the inventor of the first commercial synthetic plastic; it was made from phenol and formaldehyde and known as Bakelite. Since 1907, technology has developed and chemical engineers have been able to develop polymers that can be recycled. Polymer-based products are increasingly a part of everyday life, used in many products, from pens to parts for racing cars.
Most polymers are obtained from crude oil often found deep within the Earth’s crust and Russia, Saudi Arabia and USA are the major oil suppliers. It is accessed by drilling, which can be a costly and messy process. The oil is heated to break it down and obtain different products through a process called fractional distillation.
Some polymers can be derived from natural sources, such as plants. The most common plant-based polymer used in schools is polylactic acid (PLA), which is commonly used in a 3D printer. PLA is obtained from corn starch - the corn is fermented to produce lactic acid, which is polymerised to produce polylactic acid.
Most polymers are synthetic, meaning they are man-made and have been designed by chemical engineers. Different polymers are created all the time so that the demands of the consumer can be met. Polymers fall into two categories:
‘Thermo’ indicates that heat will be involved in the way the polymer is shaped, and ‘set’ means that once the polymer has been set in that shape, heat will not alter the form. Thermoforming plastic, however, can be heated and shaped, then heated and shaped again. These polymers are also often referred to simply as ‘thermoplastics’.
Polymers are a great material for designers and engineers as they have been engineered by humans, meaning it can be easier to predict how they will react in different contexts compared with natural materials.