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Polymers are versatile substances that can be made into a wide range of useful materials, from non-stick frying pans to bulletproof vests, with many of their potential uses yet to be discovered. They can also be found in nature in the form of proteins and DNA. Polymers can be synthesised by addition or condensation reactions and their properties can be explained in terms of intermolecular forces and functional groups.

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Infographic poster, fact sheet and student worksheet. Display the poster in your classroom or on a projector. Alternatively, print it and use it as a handout.

Use the accompanying resource to test learners’ understanding of how addition polymers are structured and named. The extension question explores the properties of a common addition polymer while assessing the benefits and drawbacks of its use.


Synthesising polymers

Addition polymers are synthesised from unsaturated monomers without the formation of any side products. They tend to degrade less easily than condensation polymers because of the stronger C–C bonds in their backbone chain.

Physical properties

The physical properties of polymers are dictated by intermolecular forces. Hydrocarbon polymer chains are held together by London dispersion forces. Stronger polymer substances are held together by hydrogen bonding or covalent cross-links.

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Synthetic and natural polymers

Synthetic polymers, known as plastics, can take decades to degrade and can release toxic fumes if burnt. Biodegradable plastic is broken down by microorganisms into compounds found in nature, while compostable plastic will only degrade under specific physical conditions.

Naturally occurring polymers include cotton, starch, DNA and proteins. Early synthetic polymers were chemically modified natural polymers, made by nitrating cellulose (nitrocellulose) and cross-linking natural rubber (vulcanised rubber).

 All illustrations © Dan Bright. Resources by Duncan Short