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What are Thermoplastic Materials?

Thermoplastic materials are a class of polymers that become pliable or moldable at a certain elevated temperature and solidify upon cooling. Unlike thermosetting plastics, which irreversibly cure, thermoplastics can be remelted and reformed repeatedly, allowing for recycling and reshaping. This property is due to their molecular structure, where polymer chains are not covalently bonded to each other, enabling them to slide past one another when heated. Common examples include polyethylene (PE), used in plastic bags, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), found in pipes and cable insulation. According to Statista, the global production of thermoplastics reached approximately 368 million metric tons in 2020, highlighting their widespread use in various industries.

The versatility of thermoplastic materials makes them integral to modern manufacturing. They offer a range of properties such as transparency, elasticity, and resistance to chemicals and electricity, which can be tailored to specific applications. For instance, polycarbonate is prized for its impact resistance and is used in bulletproof glass and eyewear lenses. The ease of processing thermoplastics also contributes to their popularity; they can be injection molded, extruded, or thermoformed into complex shapes and sizes. This adaptability, combined with the potential for reuse, positions thermoplastics as a valuable resource in both economic and environmental contexts, promoting sustainability through recyclability.

Felicia Dye
Felicia Dye

Thermoplastic materials are those that take the hardened form of plastic when cool but are converted to liquid when heated. This process of heating and melting can usually be completed many times. Each time, a new shape or form is possible. Materials that fall into this category include polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, and ethylene-vinyl acetate.

Polystyrene is a material produced from an oily liquid that tends to have a distinct odor. When in its hardened form, polystyrene is generally colorless. A good example of the substance in this state is a CD case. Color is often added to make other items such as plastic cups, DVD cases, and razors. Polystyrene is also used to make foam products such as plates, egg cartons, and packing insulation.

PVC pipe fittings.
PVC pipe fittings.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is one of the most common thermoplastic materials. Chlorine is an important component in its production. It is usually produced in sheets that are later formed into a wide range of products. Additives known as plasticizers are used to make PVC more pliable and flexible. It is used to make hoses, pipes, and inflatable toys.

Ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) is a material composed of ethylene, a mass produced chemical compound, and vinyl acetate, a colorless liquid. When these two substances are combined, a flexible material is made that can easily be formed into a number of products. EVA is used in plastic wraps to make medical gloves and coverings for electrical wires.

Thermoplastic materials are used to create CD cases.
Thermoplastic materials are used to create CD cases.

Polyurethanes are thermoplastic materials whose characteristics can vary greatly. It can be very elastic and it can also be very tough. Rubber products are often replaced by those made of polyurethane because this material is more resistant to oils, greases, and to tearing. This material can also be used to produce foam, which is often used inside of seats. Other items made of polyurethane include gaskets, belts, and surfboards.

Polycarbonate is used in making bulletproof windows.
Polycarbonate is used in making bulletproof windows.

Liquid crystal polymers (LPCs) are considered a special class of polyesters. These materials have a strong ability to resist chemical and heat damage. In the liquid form, these thermoplastic materials can produce the liquid crystal displays (LCDs) found in clocks and other electronics. In the hardened form, LPCs are used for the production of printer parts, electrical parts, and cooking wares.

EVA is a thermoplastic material used to make medical gloves.
EVA is a thermoplastic material used to make medical gloves.

Polycarbonate is a material that is generally lightweight but strong. It is considered more environmentally friendly than many other thermoplastic materials. Polycarbonate also tends to have exceptional optical properties, which makes it popular in the production of eyeglasses. This material is also used to make bulletproof glass, DVDs, and bottles.

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Discussion Comments

anon350640

I want to know about ceramic thermoplastic colours for printing purposes on glass ampoules and vials.

Charred

@SkyWhisperer - There are biodegradable plastics out on the market. I don’t know how they work or what they’re made of, but I’ve heard that they break down in about a year. I don’t think it would be too hard to retool all of our plastic production to make them biodegradable. It’s just a matter of time.

SkyWhisperer

@Mammmood - Thermoplastic composites are useful all around in my opinion, regardless what form they take or for what use. This is the reason Tupperware became so popular went it first burst on the scene. You could do anything with these plastics and of course they were unbreakable. That’s good news for the kitchen chef.

The only problem is that plastic is not biodegradable. I think we need an alternative material that is as durable as plastic yet is friendly for the environment. I don’t like seeing piles of plastics filling landfills.

Mammmood

@miriam98 - I think it depends on your prescription. I have polycarbonate in my glasses and they are not big at all.

What I really like though is PVC pipe. I consider PVC material to be like a Swiss army knife for do it yourself home construction projects. I have used it to build just about anything you can imagine.

It’s sturdy yet can easily be sawed. I especially like the fact that you can buy fittings for the pipes so that you can join one pipe to another with ease.

miriam98

I used to have eyeglasses made up of polycarbonate graphite materials. The article is right; they are very popular in the making of eyeglasses.

The only problem (at least for me) was that my lenses turned out to be very big and were thick to boot. The glasses seemed a little too big for my face. I prefer more subtle styles, like the librarian’s glasses that just kind of hang on your nose, below the eyebrows, not overtaking them.

I eventually switched to glasses that were made of a finer glass material and they are more my style.

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    • PVC pipe fittings.
      PVC pipe fittings.
    • Thermoplastic materials are used to create CD cases.
      By: von Lieres
      Thermoplastic materials are used to create CD cases.
    • Polycarbonate is used in making bulletproof windows.
      By: jody snelgrove
      Polycarbonate is used in making bulletproof windows.
    • EVA is a thermoplastic material used to make medical gloves.
      By: Kadmy
      EVA is a thermoplastic material used to make medical gloves.