Polymer chemistry is the study and manipulation of synthetic and organic chemical substances known as polymers. A polymer is a repetitive chain of molecules that join to form what is called a macromolecule. Polymers are versatile substances, having the various properties of flexibility, lightness, hardness, and durability. Ways are found by polymer chemists to isolate and develop these properties. Additionally, they identify unique conductive and chemical properties of given polymers for industrial and medical uses.
In one form or another, this branch of chemistry has been present in the realm of science since the mid-19th century. Nitrocellulose, an early polymer, was developed using the research of Henri Braconnot and Christian Schönbein, respectively. During the following years, nitrocellulose and its derivatives were used in a variety of ways, including as an effective wound dressing during the American Civil War.
The first manufacturing plant for synthetic fiber was opened in 1884 by a French industrialist named Hilaire de Chardonnet. It produced a polymer fabric called viscose rayon, which was used as a cheaper substitute for silk. Since that time, the field of polymer chemistry has expanded greatly, reaching a climax in the early 20th century with the development of Kevlar® and nylon. The development of these materials resulted in a great amount of interest which continues to this day. Several thousands of substances with practical applications have been produced since the early 20th century as a result of advances in polymer chemistry.
Usage of polymers is widespread in modern society, providing essential chemical components of many of the objects people use on a daily basis. Tires, plastic bags, compact discs, and disposable contact lenses all contain materials developed by this field of science. Every year, more and more items containing synthetic and organic polymers are introduced into the market. Since most polymers are synthetic, products utilizing them generally require smaller amounts of nonrenewable resources when compared to their counterparts made of other materials.
Polymer chemistry research is a multi-billion US Dollar industry in and of itself. This is due to its extensive applicability in almost every industrial and scientific field. Often a need that may be met by polymers is first identified, and is then followed by the funding to develop a polymer that is fit for that specific purpose. Once the polymer is developed, it can then be explored by polymer chemists to find other possible applications, as well as derivatives that may have their own uses.