Chemistry and Materials Science for Kids: Polymers, Rubber, Silicone and Plastic

Written by Michele Wheat

There are lots of different types of science, from botany (the study of plants) to astrophysics (the study of celestial objects like stars and planets). One really interesting kind of science that affects the world around us every day is materials science, which focuses on creating new materials to make different things. Some of the things that materials scientists create are polymers, like nylon, Kevlar, and Styrofoam. A polymer is a material that's made from chains of molecules linked up in a repeating pattern. When you link different molecules together in a polymer, you can get all sorts of interesting materials, and these materials can have lots of different uses. Some common examples of polymers that we see around us all the time include rubber, silicone, and plastic.

How Is Rubber Made?

Rubber is a natural polymer that comes from a tree. To make rubber, people collect the sap from rubber trees, process it to make it into a solid, and dry it. Then, they heat it and mix it with chemicals that make it stronger and more elastic, a process called vulcanization. The rubber can then be shaped into a final product, like the sole of a shoe or a balloon. Rubber can also be synthetic, made from petroleum byproducts. The manufacturing process is similar for synthetic rubber, and the result is a product that tends to last longer and is more resistant to oils and chemicals.

How Is Silicone Made?

Silicone is a synthetic polymer made from silicon, a chemical element found in sand and quartz. Making silicone starts with heating quartz to extremely high temperatures to extract the silicon. Then, the silicon is ground up and processed with a series of chemicals, resulting in the creation of a polymer. The polymer is then cured, after which it can be used to make all sorts of products, like adhesive caulk, cooking utensils, medical equipment, and silicone wristbands.

How Is Plastic Made?

Plastic isn't just one thing: There are lots of different types of plastics, each of which has different properties and uses. Most plastics are made from petroleum. The process starts by refining the petroleum into propane and ethane. Then, these chemicals are heated up in a process called "cracking," which creates propylene and ethylene. These two chemicals are used to make different polymers, which can be cooled, cut or ground into pellets, and then melted and shaped into plastic products. Plastic can take lots of different forms, from the hard plastic used to make water pipes to thin, flexible plastic wrap to Styrofoam packaging material.

What Do Polymer Scientists Do?

Polymer scientists work to create new polymers, improve the process of manufacturing existing polymers, and make the types of polymers we use more environmentally friendly. They work in a variety of settings, from universities to corporate research labs, in industries as diverse as plastics manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and electronics. Sometimes, they focus on a specific goal and reach it, but there are also many stories of scientists who were experimenting to try to do one thing and ended up accomplishing something very different. For example, Roy J. Plunkett was trying to make a better refrigerant when he accidentally created Teflon, and Stephanie Kwolek was working on a material to reinforce tires when she invented Kevlar, the material we use to make bulletproof body armor. If you choose to become a polymer scientist, who knows what you might end up creating?