Chemistry is that really boring, fiendishly difficult thing you struggle through at school and drop as soon you can right?
Wrong. The substances made by chemists have a wide range of fascinating and often mind-blowing properties with brilliantly useful uses. This is my list of a few such chemicals without going into any of that tricky chemistry stuff (feel free to look that up as well if you're so inclined, it can be really interesting).
1. Polyacetylene - A Plastic that Conducts Electricity
Polyacetylene - or poly(ethyne) if you go by modern chemical nomenclature - is a long chain hydrocarbon that conducts electricity.
Cast your mind back to school. You’ll probably remember from science lessons (if anything at all) your teaching telling you that “metals conduct electricity and everything else that you need to know about doesn’t.” This really isn’t the case. Chemistry is a whole lot more interesting than that.
Let’s consider the possible applications of conductive polymers. Poly(ethyne) is fairly similar in structure to poly(ethene) - what plastic bags are made of - and so shares its flexible nature. Combine this with poly(ethyne)’s conductivity and you have the potential for all sorts of cool things.
What about a poly(ethyne) running top that cuts out the need for long trailing headphone wires? Just put your phone in your pocket and the music travels up the material and into a pair of wireless headphones at the top. Or what about a cycling jersey with built in lights for improved visibility and safety? The possibilities are endless.
2. Poly(vinyl carbazole) - You’re Probably Sitting Next to it Right Now
Poly(vinyl carbazole) also conducts electricity. The difference is it’s photoconductive. That means it only conducts when light shines on it.
What use is that, you ask. Well, think about that photocopier at work. It has poly(vinyl carbazole) in it. Photocopiers work by shining light at the paper. The light bounces off the bits of the paper that aren’t covered in ink. This reflected light hits the surface of a drum which is made out of poly(vinyl carbazole). The bits of the poly(vinyl carbazole) that are lit up now conduct and cause certain toner (ink) particles to become electrostatically charged. The arrangement of where the toner is and isn’t charged tells the printer where it needs to print to produce an exact replica - a photocopy - of the thing being photocopied.
So, thanks to Chemistry, just slap in a document, press a few buttons and within seconds you’ll have twenty copies. Be thankful. Without chemists you’d still have to copy everything out by hand!
3. Poly(ethenol) - You Can Dissolve it in Water
Perfect as a party trick: dissolve some in a cup of perfectly normal water and pretend to all of your friends that you have a cup of strong acid!
So, what are poly(ethenol)’s real uses?
Being soluble makes it really useful as a fibre for use in medical stitches. Which is worse - getting stitches in a wound or getting the stitches removed once it heals? Well, with poly(ethenol) stitches you’ll never find out: they’ll dissolve all on their own once the wound has healed.
If you work as a laundry man or woman in a hospital, having laundry bags made out of poly(ethenol) means you don’t have to touch dirty clothes and bedsheets as you put them into a washing machine. The bag will just dissolve in the water leaving the clothes to wash perfectly. This is great because it minimises one of the main ways in which infections can spread in hospitals.
4. Biopol - Made and Broken Down by Bacteria
When most people think of plastics and polymers they envisage scientists in lab coats brewing up unnatural substances from harsh chemicals. Biopol shatters those preconceptions.
Biopol - as the name suggests - is a natural polymer made by bacteria. This means it can also be broken down by bacteria. That plastic bottle you threw away last week - if it was made of biopol - would be happily breaking down into carbon dioxide and water in your nearest landfill. This is obviously much better for the environment than all those nasty plastics we currently use that linger around for centuries poisoning the land. Trouble is, until we stop using all our current plastics, that’s not going to happen and mass change is always difficult to inspire in this sort of everyday thing.
5. Poly(ethene) with Added Carbon Monoxide - Photodegradable
Carbon monoxide. That's the silent and deadly, colourless, tasteless and odourless gas that can leak out of a faulty boiler and poison you in your sleep, isn't it? Why on earth would you put it in a plastic?
Carbon monoxide, which turns into a carbonyl group when you add it to poly(ethene), is particularly effective at absorbing UV light from the sun. It then passes the energy from this light onto the adjacent bits of the poly(ethene) molecule. This weakens them so that they can be easily broken down by bacteria in the same way as biopol.
In theory this is a really great idea, but when the vast majority of the plastic that we throw away is buried 20-feet deep in a landfill site it really doesn't do much good.
There are loads more - hundreds upon hundreds - of new plastics and polymers out there just waiting to be discovered and made by a scientist in a lab, a bacterium or perhaps even you.
A plastic: that's lighter than air; which is luminous; which generates electricity when flexed... When you start thinking about it the possibilities really are endless.
I hope you’ve been interested by the cool properties of these plastics and have perhaps had your perceptions of chemistry changed - it really is a lot more exciting in the real world than it was for you at school!