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10 Most Recent Questions and Answers (out of 27)

1580. How can I describe a polymer to a group of 4th grade students? — M, Hanover, Massachusetts
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Polymers are simply giant molecules that were formed by sticking together a great many small molecules. The properties of a given polymer depend on which small molecules it contains and how those molecules were assembled. To help your students visualize this idea, I'd go right to two familiar models: snap-together beads ("pop beads") and spaghetti.

Snap-together beads are a perfect model for many polymers. As individual beads, you can pour them like a liquid and move your hand through them easily. But once you begin snapping them together into long chains, they develop new properties that weren't present in the beads themselves. For example, they get tangled together and don't flow so easily any more.

That emergence of new properties is exactly what happens in many polymers. For example, ethylene is a simple gas molecule, but if you stick ethylene molecules together to form enormous chains, you get polyethylene (more specifically, high-density polyethylene, recycling number 2, milk-jug plastic). Ethylene molecules are called "monomers" and the giant chains that are made from them are called "polymers".

Polyethylene retains some of the chemical properties of its monomer units, namely that it doesn't react with most other chemicals and almost nothing sticks to it. But polyethylene also has properties that the monomer units didn't have: polyethylene is a sturdy, flexible solid. You can stretch it without breaking it. That happens because you can make its polymer molecules slide across one another, but you can't untangle the tangles.

To get an idea of what it's like to work with molecules that can slide through each other but may not be able to untangle themselves, shift over to cooked and drained spaghetti. If you dice the spaghetti up into tiny pieces, it's like the monomers—nothing to tangle. You can pour the tiny pieces like a liquid. But trying doing that with a bowl of long spaghetti noddles. They're so tangled up that they can't do much. In fact, if you let the water dry up to some extent, the stuff will become a sturdy, flexible solid, just like HDPE!

There is much more to say about polymers, for example, they're not all simple straight chains and some of them cross-link so that they can't untangle no matter what you do. But this should be a good start. Polymer molecules are everywhere, including in paper and hair. Paper is primarily cellulose, giant molecules built out of sugar molecules. Hair is protein polymer, giant molecules built out of protein monomer units. They're both sturdy, stretchy, flexible solids and they're both softened by water—which acts as a molecular lubricant for the polymer molecules. Not all polymers are sturdy, or stretchy, or flexible, but a good many are.


1536. Why does steam make ironing cotton pants so much easier? — AB, Virginia
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Water "plasticizes" the cotton. A plasticizer is a chemical that dissolves into a plastic and lubricates its molecules so that they can move across one another more easily. Cotton is almost pure cellulose, a polymer consisting of sugar molecules linked together in long chains. Since sugar dissolves easily in water, water dissolves easily in cellulose. Even though cellulose scorches before it melts, it can be softened by heat and water. When you iron cotton pants, the steam dissolves into the cellulose molecules and allows the fabric to smooth out beautifully.

1520. What happens when sheets of paper, long rolled up into a tube, are unrolled but simply won't ever lie flat again? — PD
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Paper consists mostly of cellulose, a natural polymer (i.e. plastic) built by stringing together thousands of individual sugar molecules into vast chains. Like the sugars from which it's constructed, cellulose's molecular pieces cling tightly to one another at room temperature and make it rather stiff and brittle. Moreover, cellulose's chains are so entangled with one another that it couldn't pull apart even if its molecular pieces didn't cling so tightly. These effects are why it's so hard to reshape cellulose and why wood or paper don't melt; they burn or decompose instead. In contrast, chicle — the polymer in chewing gum — can be reshaped easily at room temperature.

Even though pure cellulose can't be reshaped by melting, it can be softened with water and/or heat. Like ordinary sugar, cellulose is attracted to water and water molecules easily enter its chains. This water lubricates the chains so that the cellulose becomes somewhat pliable and heat increases that pliability. When you iron a damped cotton or linen shirt, both of which consist of cellulose fibers, you're taking advantage of that enhanced pliability to reshape the fabric.

But even when dry, fibrous materials such as paper, cotton, or linen have some pliability because thin fibers of even brittle materials can bend significantly without breaking. If you bend paper gently, its fibers will bend elastically and when you let the paper relax, it will return to its original shape.

However, if you bend the paper and keep it bent for a long time, the cellulose chains within the fibers will begin to move relative to one another and the fibers themselves will begin to move relative to other fibers. Although both of these motions can be facilitated by moisture and heat, time along can get the job done at room temperature. Over months or years in a tightly rolled shape, a sheet of paper will rearrange its cellulose fibers until it adopts the rolled shape as its own. When you then remove the paper from its constraints, it won't spontaneously flatten out. You'll have to reshape it again with time, moisture, and/or heat. If you press it in a heavy book for another long period, it'll adopt a flat shape again.


1496. How does a paper towel absorb water?
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Paper towels are made out of finely divided fibers of cellulose, the principal structural chemical in cotton, wood, and most other plants. Cotton is actually a polymer, which like any other plastic is a giant molecule consisting of many small molecules linked together in an enormous chain or treelike structure. The small molecules or "monomers" that make up cellulose are sugar molecules. We can't get any nutritional value out of cellulose because we don't have the enzymes necessary to split the sugars apart. Cows, on the other hand, have microorganisms in their stomachs that produce the necessary enzymes and allow the cows to digest cellulose.

Despite the fact that cellulose isn't as tasty as sugar, it does have one important thing in common with sugar: both chemicals cling tightly to water molecules. The presence of many hydroxyl groups (-OH) on the sugar and cellulose molecules allow them to form relatively strong bonds with water molecules (HOH). This clinginess makes normal sugar very soluble in water and makes water very soluble in cellulose fibers. When you dip your paper towel in water, the water molecules rush into the towel to bind to the cellulose fibers and the towel absorbs water.

Incidentally, this wonderful solubility of water in cellulose is also what causes shrinkage and wrinkling in cotton clothing when you launder it. The cotton draws in water so effectively that the cotton fibers swell considerably when wet and this swelling reshapes the garment. Hot drying chases the water out of the fibers quickly and the forces between water and cellulose molecules tend to compress the fibers as they dry. The clothes shrink and wrinkle in the process.


1429. I saw a magic show where they put a needle through a balloon. I tried this and it worked, but only with latex material balloons. I want to do my science project on this but my teacher said it was not a good idea. I think that it is because it is science, not magic. What do you think? — J, 6th Grade
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It is science. The needle is able to enter latex without tearing it because the latex molecules are stretching out of the way of the needle without breaking. Like all polymers (plastics), latex consists of very large molecules. In latex, these molecules are basically long chains of atoms that are permanently linked to one another at various points along their lengths. You can picture a huge pile of spaghetti with each pasta strand representing one latex molecule. Now picture little links connecting pairs of these strands at random, so that when you try to pick up one strand, all the other strands come with it. That's the way latex looks microscopically. You can't pull the strands of latex apart because they are all linked together. But you can push a spoon between the strands.

That is what happens when you carefully weave a needle into a latex balloon—the needle separates the polymer strands locally, but doesn't actually pull them apart or break them. Since breaking the latex molecules will probably cause the balloon to tear and burst, you have to be very patient and use a very sharp needle. I usually oil the needle before I do this and I don't try to insert the needle in the most highly stressed parts of the balloon. The regions near the tip of the balloon and near where it is filled are the least stressed and thus the easiest to pierce successfully with a needle. A reader has informed me that coating the needle with Vasoline is particularly helpful.

One final note: a reader pointed out that it is also possible to put a needle through a balloon with the help of a small piece of adhesive tape. If you put the tape on a patch of the inflated balloon, it will prevent the balloon from ripping when you pierce the balloon right through the tape. This "cheaters" approach is more reliable than trying to thread the needle between the latex molecules, but it's less satisfying as well. But it does point out the fact that a balloon bursts because of tearing and that if you prevent the balloon from tearing, you can pierce it as much as you like.


1217. What changes occur to wood when it is permanently bent with the aid of steam? — MH, Perth, West Australia
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The main structural component of wood is cellulose, a polymer (plastic) consisting of long molecular chains of sugars. While cellulose is extremely useful and is by far the most common polymer/plastic in the world, it can't be melted because the temperature at which its molecular chains begin to move relative to one another is above the temperature at which those molecular chains begin to fall apart. In short, cellulose decomposes before it melts. Shaping or reshaping cellulose is very difficult, though chemical processes have made it possible to reform cellulose into such materials as cellophane and rayon.

The process you describe, bending wood while heating the wood with steam, takes advantage of the fact that cellulose molecules bind strongly to water molecules and that the water molecules then lubricate the chains so that they can move relative to one another. Water is said to be a "plasticizer" for cellulose. Heat, water, and stress allow the cellulose chains to slide slowly across one another. With enough patience, the wood's internal structure can be changed forever. When the heat, water, and stress are then removed, the wood keeps its new shape.


1162. Is there any easy way to mold plastics?
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The easiest way to mold plastics is to form them directly inside a mold. Most plastics are made by attaching small molecules to one another in a process called polymerization. You begin with one or more small molecules or "monomers" and cause them to link together into in a "polymer." You can initiate this polymerization with chemical catalysts, light, or even heat. There are many plastic-forming systems that you can buy commercially. You simply mix a few chemicals together, pour the mixture into a mold and wait. Once the polymerization has finished, you have a molded piece of plastic.

If you don't want to do the polymerization yourself, you can start with a finished plastic and melt it. Most plastics that haven't been vulcanized into one giant molecule (as is done in rubber tires) will melt at high enough temperatures (although some burn or decompose before they melt). These molten plastics can be stretched, squeezed, or poured into molds to make just about any shape you like.


1005. How dangerous are plastics for storing and reheating food? I remember hearing that plastic containers can release carcinogenic materials when reheating food in the microwave. I also heard that plastics can release "plasticizers" into food even when cold. What studies exist about these dangers? — CVL, Fairfax, VA
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While I'm not up to date on actual studies, I would think that most food storage plastics introduce very little contamination into the foods stored in them. We have become so concerned as a society about toxic chemicals in recent years that we tend to overreact much of the time. While the actual polymer molecules in most plastics are relatively inert and harmless, plastics inevitably contain some small molecules, either by accident or by design, that work their way into food. Even if some of these molecules are toxic or carcinogenic, the quantities involved are almost certainly insignificant. Modern chemical testing can detect incredibly small quantities of various chemicals and we panic every time we find them in our environment. But the societal cost of banning or avoiding all contact with or use of these chemicals may have hidden costs that are worse than the problem we're trying to solve. Moreover, I'll bet that many of the foods put in plastic containers are greater health hazards than the containers themselves.

958. How are the nylon ropes of parachutes able to stop the falling parachuter? How much of a force must they over come, and how might the ropes' elasticity be affected? — C
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When the parachuter opens the parachute and begins to slow down, the parachute's nylon shrouds briefly exert a large upward force on the parachuter. Over a period of a few seconds, the parachuter slows from a downward speed of about 150 mph to a downward speed of 20 mph and experiences several g's of upward acceleration. To cause this much upward acceleration, the nylon shrouds must exert an upward force on the parachuter that is several times the parachuter's weight. The nylon shrouds are quite strong and can easily tolerate this much tension without exceeding their elastic limits. There should be no adverse effects on their elasticities.

831. How do Oven Cooking Bags work? I know they are made of heat resistant nylon resin, but can you explain what that means? — HY, Halifax, Nova Scotia
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There are two broad classes of plastics: (1) thermoplastics that can melt, at least in principle, and (2) thermosets that can't melt under any circumstances. Thermoplastics consist of very long but separable molecules and common thermoplastics include polyethylene (milk containers), polystyrene (Styrofoam cups), Nylon (hosiery), and cellulose (cotton and wood fiber). Thermosets consist of very long molecules that have been permanently cross-linked to one another to form one giant molecule. Common thermosets include cross-linked alpha-helix protein (hair) and vulcanized rubber (car tires).

Most common plastic items are made from thermoplastics because these meltable plastics can reshaped easily. But different thermoplastics melt at different temperatures, depending on how strongly their long molecules cling to one another. The plastic in an Oven Cooking Bag is almost certainly a thermoplastic form of Nylon, but one that melts at such a high temperature that it doesn't change shape in the oven. It's possible that the Nylon has been cross-linked to form a thermoset, so that it can't melt at all, but I wouldn't expect this to be the case.


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