The term "polymer" derives from the ancient Greek word πολύς (polus, meaning "many, much") and μέρος (meros, meaning "parts"), and refers to a molecule whose structure is composed of multiple repeating units, from which originates a characteristic of high relative molecular mass and attendant properties. The units composing polymers derive, actually or conceptually, from molecules of low relative molecular mass. The term was coined in 1833 by Jöns Jacob Berzelius, though with a definition distinct from the modern IUPAC definition. The modern concept of polymers as covalently bonded macromolecular structures was proposed in 1920 by Hermann Staudinger, who spent the next decade finding experimental evidence for this hypothesis.
Polymers are studied in the fields of biophysics and macromolecular science, and polymer science (which includes polymer chemistry and polymer physics). Historically, products arising from the linkage of repeating units by covalent chemical bonds have been the primary focus of polymer science; emerging important areas of the science now focus on non-covalent links. Polyisoprene of latex rubber and the polystyrene of styrofoam are examples of polymeric natural/biological and synthetic polymers, respectively. In biological contexts, essentially all biological macromolecules—i.e., proteins (polyamides), nucleic acids (polynucleotides), and polysaccharides—are purely polymeric, or are composed in large part of polymeric components—e.g., isoprenylated/lipid-modified glycoproteins, where small lipidic molecules and oligosaccharide modifications occur on the polyamide backbone of the protein.
The simplest theoretical models for polymers are ideal chains.
Polymers Are of Two Types:
- Natural polymeric materials such as shellac, amber, wool, silk and natural rubber have been used for centuries. A variety of other natural polymers exist, such as cellulose, which is the main constituent of wood and paper.
- The list of synthetic polymers includes synthetic rubber, phenol formaldehyde resin (or Bakelite), neoprene, nylon, polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl), polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, polyacrylonitrile, PVB, silicone, and many more.
Most commonly, the continuously linked backbone of a polymer used for the preparation of plastics consists mainly of carbon atoms. A simple example is polyethylene ('polythene' in British English), whose repeating unit is based on ethylene monomer. However, other structures do exist; for example, elements such as silicon form familiar materials such as silicones, examples being Silly Putty and waterproof plumbing sealant. Oxygen is also commonly present in polymer backbones, such as those of polyethylene glycol, polysaccharides (in glycosidic bonds), and DNA (in phosphodiester bonds).