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M434
Plastics: The Fourth Kingdom

Jeffrey Syken

As children, we’re taught that there are three kingdoms: Animal, Vegetable and Mineral. But there’s a fourth kingdom: Plastics. Though plastic products may have elements of the other kingdoms (i.e. carbon), they are a world unto themselves in their composition and physical properties.

Because it was derived from the cellulose in cotton, the first plastic product (dating back to 1869) was named by its inventor Celluloid. Celluloid’s main purpose was to replace Ivory derived from elephant tusks for the making of billiard balls and/or piano keys. Because it was moldable, it found uses in other products (i.e. shirt collars). However, Celluloid had one major flaw; it was highly flammable.

By the early 20th Century, on-going research into plastics led to the development of a thermo-setting plastic that, with the addition of minerals (i.e. asbestos), would be both water and flame resistant. Bakelite combined two compounds of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen to form a hard, moldable plastic that found wide use in consumer products and industrial applications. During WWII, plastic products such as Plexiglas proved their worth in military applications (i.e. bubble canopies). After WWII, research and development would lead to new and better plastic products such as Mylar.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.


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