The Structure of Polymers

Many common classes of polymers are composed of hydrocarbons, compounds of carbon and hydrogen. These polymers are specifically made of carbon atoms bonded together, one to the next, into long chains that are called the backbone of the polymer.  Because of the nature of carbon, one or more other atoms can be attached to each carbon atom in the backbone.  There are polymers that contain only carbon and hydrogen atoms. Polyethylene, polypropylene, polybutylene, polystyrene and polymethylpentene are examples of these.  Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has chlorine attached to the all-carbon backbone.  Teflon has fluorine attached to the all-carbon backbone.

Other common manufactured polymers have backbones that include elements other than carbon.  Nylons contain nitrogen atoms in the repeat unit backbone.  Polyesters and polycarbonates contain oxygen in the backbone. There are also some polymers that, instead of having a carbon backbone, have a silicon or phosphorous backbone. These are considered inorganic polymers. One of the more famous silicon-based polymers is Silly Putty®.

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