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Thermosetting vs. Thermoplastic Polymers

Most of the polymers described above are classified as thermoplastic. This reflects the fact that above Tg they may be shaped or pressed into molds, spun or cast from melts or dissolved in suitable solvents for later fashioning. Because of their high melting point and poor solubility in most solvents, Kevlar and Nomex proved to be a challenge, but this was eventually solved.

Another group of polymers, characterized by a high degree of cross-linking, resist deformation and solution once their final morphology is achieved. Such polymers are usually prepared in molds that yield the desired object. Because these polymers, once formed, cannot be reshaped by heating, they are called thermosets .Partial formulas for four of these will be shown below by clicking the appropriate button. The initial display is of Bakelite, one of the first completely synthetic plastics to see commercial use (circa 1910).

 

A natural resinous polymer called lignin has a cross-linked structure similar to bakelite. Lignin is the amorphous matrix in which the cellulose fibers of wood are oriented. Wood is a natural composite material, nature's equivalent of fiberglass and carbon fiber composites. A partial structure for lignin is shown here:

 

Contributors

William Reusch, Professor Emeritus (Michigan State U.), Virtual Textbook of Organic Chemistry