If there’s one thing common to humans across millenia, it’s the need to tinker. Since we started exploring the natural world, we have been asking how we can make things better, stronger, or more useful. To that end, the discovery of polymers marked a major turning point.
By definition, polymers are large molecules composed of long chains of repeated smaller molecules (monomers). Polymers can occur in nature (these are known as biopolymers) or be created in labs (synthetic polymers). Prized for their strength, durability, and elasticity, polymers have found uses in human life for thousands of years, starting with a simple rubber ball.
The first evidence of polymerization can be traced back to 1600 BC in Central America. Mesoamericans combined natural plant latex with juice from morning glory vines to create rubber. They continually played with the process to make the substance bouncier, stretchier, or water resistant, creating the world’s first bouncing balls and waterproof soles.
This early experimentation paved the way for vulcanization, which is the addition of sulfur to natural rubber to increase tensile strength. Patented by Charles Goodyear in 1844, we still depend on this chemical conversion every time we drive our cars or pump up our bike tires.
The term polymer wasn’t coined until nearly 100 years later, when Hermann Staudinger, using rubber as a model, examined the molecular structure of these materials. The formal discovery of polymerization gave way to an explosion of applications that continue to reshape human life.
Where a need existed, synthetic polymers were created to enhance it. The rubber ball’s legacy bounced from plastics to plumbing, from stockings to silly putty. By the mid 20th century, polymeric materials became household names, with teflon, polyester, plexiglass, nylon, and styrofoam.
In 2000, the Nobel prize was awarded to Alan J. Heeger, Alan G. MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa for the discovery and development of conductive polymers. Plastic, until then only used as an insulator, could now be modified to conduct electricity. These new materials were lighter, more workable, less corrosive, and less expensive than metals.
The polymers of today enable some of the most exciting innovations of the 21st century, from wearable technology to 3-D printing:
Rieke Metals is proud to help companies from a variety of industries continue this legacy of making things better. We offer a catalog of specialty semiconducting polymers, from individual monomers to material science research kits that can help you determine your research and development needs. Additionally, Rieke Metals can develop unique monomers and polymers as well as design or enhance a current route of synthesis to best suit your requirements.
At Rieke Metals, we like to say that we offer Today’s Materials for Tomorrow’s Electronics. Ask us how we can help you continue this long tradition of innovation.