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A thermoplastic, or thermosoftening plastic, is a polymer that becomes pliable or moldable above a specific temperature, and returns to a solid state upon cooling. Most thermoplastics have a high molecular weight. The polymer chains associate through intermolecular forces, which permits thermoplastics to be remolded because the intermolecular interactions increase upon cooling and restore the bulk properties. In this way, thermoplastics differ from thermosetting polymers, which form irreversible chemical bonds during the curing process. Thermosets often do not melt, but break down and do not reform upon cooling.
Above its glass transition temperature, Tg, and below its melting point, Tm, the physical properties of a thermoplastic change drastically without an associated phase change. Within this temperature range, most thermoplastics are rubbery due to alternating rigid crystalline and elastic amorphous regions, approximating random coils.
Some thermoplastics do not fully crystallize above glass transition temperature Tg, retaining some, or all of their amorphous characteristics. Amorphous and semi-amorphous plastics are used when high optical clarity is necessary, as light is scattered strongly by crystallites larger than its wavelength. Amorphous and semi-amorphous plastics are less resistant to chemical attack and environmental stress cracking because they lack a crystalline structure.
Brittleness can be decreased with the addition of plasticizers, which increases the mobility of amorphous chain segments to effectively lower Tg. Modification of the polymer through copolymerization or through the addition of non-reactive side chains to monomers before polymerization can also lower Tg. Before these techniques were employed, plastic automobile parts would often crack when exposed to cold temperatures. Recently, thermoplastic elastomers have become available.
Acrylic, a polymer called poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA), is also known by trade names such as Lucite, Perspex and Plexiglas. It serves as a sturdy substitute for glass for such items as aquariums, motorcycle helmet visors, aircraft windows, viewing ports of submersibles, and lenses of exterior lights of automobiles. It is extensively used to make signs, including lettering and logos. In medicine, it is used in bone cement and to replace eye lenses. Acrylic paint consists of PMMA particles suspended in water. Most schools use it when teaching about thermoplastics.
Nylon, belonging to a class of polymers called polyamides, has served as a substitute for silk in products such as parachutes, flak vests and women's stockings. Its fibers are useful in making fabrics, rope, carpets and musical strings. Whereas in bulk form, nylon is used for mechanical parts including machine screws, gear wheels and power tool casings. In addition, nylon is used in the manufacture of heat-resistant composite materials.
Polyethylene (or polyethene, polythene, PE) is a family of similar materials categorized according to their density and molecular structure. For example, ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) is tough and resistant to chemicals, and it is used to manufacture moving machine parts, bearings, gears, artificial joints and some bulletproof vests. High-density polyethylene (HDPE), recyclable plastic no. 2, is commonly used as milk jugs, liquid laundry detergent bottles, outdoor furniture, margarine tubs, portable gasoline cans, water drainage pipes, and grocery bags. Medium-density polyethylene (MDPE) is used for packaging film, sacks and gas pipes and fittings. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is softer and flexible and is used in the manufacture of squeeze bottles, milk jug caps, retail store bags. and (LLDPE) as stretch wrap in transporting and handling boxes of durable goods, and as the common household food covering. XLPE or "PEX" (cross-linked polyethylene) is a semi-rigid/flexible material which has gained wide use in cold or hot water building heating/cooling applications (hydronic heating and cooling) due to its exceptional resistance to breakdown from wide temperature variations.
Polypropylene (PP) is useful for such diverse products as reusable plastic food containers i.e.) "microwave and dishwasher safe" plastic containers, diaper lining, sanitary pad lining and casing, ropes, carpets, plastic moldings, piping systems, car batteries, insulation for electrical cables and filters for gases and liquids. In medicine, it is used in hernia treatment and to make heat-resistant medical equipment. Polypropylene sheets are used for stationery folders and packaging and clear storage bins. Polypropylene is defined by the recyclable plastic number 5. Although relatively inert, it is vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation and can degrade considerably in direct sunlight. It may be worthy to note that (PP) is not as impact-resistant as the polyethlenes (HDPE, LDPE). PP is also somewhat permeable to highly volatile gases and liquids.
Polystyrene is manufactured in various forms that have differing applications. Extruded polystyrene (PS) is used in the manufacture of disposable cutlery, CD and DVD cases, plastic models of cars and boats, and smoke detector housings. Expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) is used in making insulation and packaging materials, such as the "peanuts" and molded foam used to cushion fragile products. Extruded polystyrene foam (XPS), known by the trade name Styrofoam, is used to make architectural models and drinking cups for heated beverages. Polystyrene copolymers are used in the manufacture of toys and product casings.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a tough, lightweight material that is resistant to acids and bases. Much of it is used by the construction industry, such as for vinyl siding, drainpipes, gutters and roofing sheets. It is also converted to flexible forms with the addition of plasticizers, thereby making it useful for items such as hoses, tubing, electrical insulation, coats, jackets and upholstery. Flexible PVC is also used in inflatable products, such as water beds and pool toys.
Teflon is the brand name given by DuPont Corp. for a polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which belongs to a class of thermoplastics known as fluoropolymers. It is famous as a coating for non-stick cookware. Being chemically inert, it is used in making containers and pipes that come in contact with reactive chemicals. It is also used as a lubricant to reduce wear from friction between sliding parts, such as gears, bearings and bushings.
- Baeurle SA, Hotta A, Gusev AA (2006). "On the glassy state of multiphase and pure polymer materials". Polymer 47: 6243–6253. doi:10.1016/j.polymer.2006.05.076.