SITE VISITS: Plastic World

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Science  05 Nov 1999:
Vol. 286, Issue 5442, pp. 1047
DOI: 10.1126/science.286.5442.1047c

From Teflon pans to polypropylene socks, vinyl siding to silicone O-rings, polymers are the stitching that holds together modern life. The Web offers loads of info on these chains of molecules, including two great educational sites.

Macrogalleria, a site for schoolchildren, introduces polymers using 3D pictures of molecules and movies of reactions. It gives you the lowdown on how to make nylon or polyurethane, or analyze polymers with infrared spectroscopy and chromatography. Also graphics-rich but aimed at freshman chemistry students is Polymers & Liquid Crystals, a huge virtual textbook that's searchable, which makes it useful as a reference. At the site's virtual lab, interactive applets let you test the viscosity of a polymer solution, or the birefringence (light-bending properties) of a material. You can also learn how the liquid crystal display (LCD) in your wristwatch works: A twisted array of oriented molecules straightens in response to an electric field, which keeps light from bouncing off a mirror and makes the numbers look dark.

These two sites list other good polymer links, ranging from an industry page on plastics recycling to a brief history called People and Polymers. Scientists first suspected these macromolecules existed back in 1861, when they found that dissolved cellulose and starches clogged fine filters.

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