What is a Polymer?

Polymers are widely used in the Aqua Mix line up as well as in many other high tech products associated with the Stone and Tile Industry. Most company salesmen highlight the benefits of polymers but few know exactly what they are. So I thought it prudent to outline exactly what we mean by the word Polymer. 

From your high school chemistry you know that all things are made from atoms. There are specific types of atoms such as hydrogen which are called elements. When different atoms or elements are combined together new molecules are formed such as when the elements, hydrogen and oxygen combine to produce water. Changing which atoms bond together changes the properties of the molecule hence hydrogen is a gas and water a liquid. This will impact greatly on polymers because the atomic bonds will determine what the polymer will do, whether you can bounce it, squash it or heat it successfully.

So what is a polymer?

A polymer is a chain of linked repetitive molecules resulting in a larger molecule. “Poly” means many and “mer” means units.

The characteristics of a polymer are determined by the atoms used and how they are linked together. The individual parts of the polymer chain are called monomers (single units) and not all molecules can join together to make repetitive chains or polymers hence the reason why the units of a polymer are called monomers and not molecules. Polymers can be linear repetitive chains (called the backbone) or branched with off-shoots of repetitive monomers. When a polymer is made from one repetitive monomer it is called a homopolymer and when it is made from two it is called a copolymer. The more monomers linked to the chain the more varied the polymers characteristics.

If Polymers are repetitive chains of monomers resulting in large molecules what makes them different and good for our industry? Polymers can do three specific things. They can bend and twist resulting in tangling. Their movement is slower due to their size and they can stick together. The tangling makes polymers stronger. However some polymers are straight and here the ability to stick together enhances polymer strength. Molecules are like magnets with the positive and negative charges of the atoms creating a range of weak to strong bonds. With a polymer being a repetitive chain even a chain of weak molecules adds up to a strong bond due to the shear number of linked monomers. Hence polymers are more resistant to change. The fact that they move slower is also a benefit. The size of the chains causes the slow speed. Imagine a situation where 10 people wish to move across a busy road. Three of them are children so all 10 hold hands forming a group. Even though the three children want to run across at speed the slow movement of the larger group and the strong bond created  by holding hands means the group crosses at a steady speed safely reaching their destination. It is the same with polymers. The large molecule moves slowly and in doing so helps to keep more potentially rouge monomers in check where they can contribute their attributes to the team effort.

There are many types of natural polymers for example cellulose that makes up plants and trees. However many of the natural polymers have characteristics that are not necessarily optimal for use and hence the advent of synthetic polymers. A good example is rubber. For centuries rubber was harvested from trees in the form of sap. This is a natural polymer called polyisoprene. Rubber is an elastomer meaning it can stretch and recover its shape, which is a great characteristic. However when you heat natural rubber it gets quite fluid and sticky and when it gets too cold it gets hard and brittle, not good characteristics for making a car tyre. In the late 1800’s Charles Goodyear stumbled on a synthetic polymer when he accidentally heated a concoction of rubber, sulphur and white lead. Once heated he found the resulting cooled rubber did not get fluid or sticky when re-heated or hard and brittle when cooled. He had in fact stumbled on vulcanised rubber. The reason this occurred was because the sulphur atoms had created a bridge between the polymer chains of rubber linking them all together. This meant that when heated the polymer chains could not flow past or around each other, or break apart easily hence the ability to withstand changes of temperature. This phenomenon of creating a bride is called cross linking and is an integral part of modern polymer technology.

So in summary synthetic polymers are large chains of monomers that dramatically change and improve the characteristics of natural polymers and give us materials that have a combination of features otherwise unavailable by the individual components. Polymers are lighter, stronger, longer lasting, easier to shape and in many cases more chemical resistant. This is why companies like Aqua Mix use polymer technology in their products. Products such as Sealers Choice and Ultra Solv could not be made without them. The thought of having a sealer which can resist oils and a wide range of other chemicals, last up to 15 years, have high resistance to temperature and temperature fluctuations as well as being non-toxic and non-flammable would have been impossible without modern polymer technology. Aqua Mix Sealers Choice is such a sealer and a great example of how Aqua Mix utilises only the best polymer technology.

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