Polymers in Practice: DIY Experiments to Understand Polymer Science

Polymer Experiments At Home
27 May 2024
Polymers in Practice: DIY Experiments to Understand Polymer Science

Polymers are large molecules that are made up of smaller monomers, or repeating "links" in a molecular chain. When monomers ("mono" means "one") come together, they form a polymer ("poly" means "many"). Polymers can occur naturally. For example, keratin, the material that your hair and nails are made of, is a polymer. Polymers can also be synthetic, or human-made. For example, polyethylene is a polymer that is used in plastics. Polymers are important because when you bond monomers together, you get materials that have unique properties. Some polymers are very flexible, while others are very strong.

The versatility of polymers makes them valuable materials that are used to manufacture lots of different things. One of the most common types of polymers is plastic. Packaging materials including plastic bottles, to-go containers, and plastic bags are all examples of items made using polypropylene and polyethylene polymers. Plastic utensils and toys are also made of polymers, as are the casings of electronics. Plastic toys are made using polymers because they are durable and safe for children.

Sports equipment, including helmets and rackets, is also made with polymers, which can be both strong and lightweight. The strength of polymers helps to keep us safe, whether they're used in a baseball helmet or in a bulletproof vest. Durable polymers are also used to manufacture car parts, including bumpers, headlights, body panels, and dashboards. Using polymers reduces the weight of a car, and flexible polymer panels can also help to absorb the impact if there's a crash, keeping the people inside safe.

You'll find polymers in hospitals, too. Disposable medical supplies, including syringes, gloves, and IV bags, are made with polypropylene and latex polymers, which are cheaper and reduce the risk of infection that would come with reusing supplies. And lightweight prosthetics and implants can be made using polymers, too.

Polymers also make up products used in construction. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a common material used in building homes because it is very strong and doesn't wear out as quickly as other building materials do. Polymers are also found in the insulation that keeps our homes and community buildings warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

You might even be wearing polymers right now. The textile industry uses polymers to make fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and spandex. Polymer-based fabrics can be durable, wrinkle-resistant, waterproof, or super-stretchy, depending on the type of polymer that's used.

Polymers are everywhere around us, but you don't have to rely on scientists in labs to make some. You can do science experiments at home to make your own polymers and learn about their different properties. The results of these experiments are always interesting and often fun, too!

  • Learn About Reactions and Polymers: Slime Time: This slime project uses white glue, water, and borax to create a polymer that has the properties of both a liquid and a solid at the same time.
  • The Science of Slime: Learn about the properties of cross-linked polymers, the carbon chains on which slime is built, and the process of addition polymerization with this experiment.
  • Make a Bouncing Polymer Ball: Chemistry is a big part of what makes bouncy balls bounce. Make your own polymer bouncing ball with simple ingredients and measure how your homemade polymer ball stands up against others.
  • Shrinking Polymers: Polymers can have some really interesting properties when you play around with them. Try this experiment to make some incredible shrinking artwork with the help of an oven and an adult.
  • Turn Milk Into Plastic: Milk contains a protein called casein, which you can use to make a form of plastic. In this experiment, casein molecules come together to form a moldable polymer that can then be colored and molded into beads, ornaments, or figures.
  • Crunch and Munch Polymer Molecules: This science lab activity helps to teach the concepts and vocabulary of polymers using cheese balls, cheese puffs, and Cheetos to represent initiators, monomers, and cross-linkers.
  • Polymer Gummy Bears: This two-day experiment using gummy bears can be a fun way to learn about what polymers can do.
  • Learning About Hydrogels: Hydrogels are polymers that can absorb lots of water, and they can be found in a variety of different products, including hair gel, diapers, and contact lenses.
  • Crazy Polymer Putty: Polyvinyl acetate (PVA) glue is a type of polymer that can be combined with borax to form a squishy, bouncy substance.
  • Water Jelly Crystal Growing Experiment: Turn what looks like rock salt into a water-filled "crystal" in this experiment that uses a superabsorbent polymer.
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