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Chemistry LibreTexts

Polyethylene

Polyethylene is probably the polymer you see most in daily life. Polyethylene is the most popular plastic in the world. This is the polymer that makes grocery bags, shampoo bottles, children's toys, and even bullet proof vests. For such a versatile material, it has a very simple structure, the simplest of all commercial polymers. A molecule of polyethylene is nothing more than a long chain of carbon atoms, with two hydrogen atoms attached to each carbon atom. That's what the picture at the top of the page shows, but it might be easier to draw it like the picture below, only with the chain of carbon atoms being many thousands of atoms long.

Sometimes it's a little more complicated. Sometimes some of the carbons, instead of having hydrogens attached to them, will have long chains of polyethylene attached to them. This is called branched, or low-density polyethylene, or LDPE. When there is no branching, it is called linear polyethylene, or HDPE. Linear polyethylene is much stronger than branched polyethylene, but branched polyethylene is cheaper and easier to make.

Linear polyethylene is normally produced with molecular weights in the range of 200,000 to 500,000, but it can be made even higher. Polyethylene with molecular weights of three to six million is referred to as ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene, or UHMWPE. UHMWPE can be used to make fibers which are so strong they replaced Kevlar for use in bullet proof vests. Large sheets of it can be used instead of ice for skating rinks.