|MLA Citation:||Bloomfield, Louis A. "Plastics" How Everything Works 21 Mar 2018. Page 3 of 3. 21 Mar 2018 <http://www.howeverythingworks.org/prints.php?topic=plastics&page=3>.|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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