Skip main navigation

Materials: introducing plastics and polymers

We take you through the discovery of conductive plastics.
© University of Wollongong, 2019

We’re all familiar with plastic. It is a ubiquitous material in all of our lives. But how much do we know about it?

What is Plastic?

To understand the significance of plastics, we’ll first learn what plastics are made of.

Plastics are a group of materials, either synthetic or naturally occurring, that may be shaped when soft and then hardened to retain the given shape. Plastics are polymers.(1)

What is a Polymer?

We define a polymer as: A chemical compound where molecules are bonded together in long repeating chains. These materials, polymers, have unique properties and can be tailored depending on their intended purpose. Polymers can be either man-made or naturally occurring.
The word polymer comes from two Greek words: poly, meaning many, and meros, meaning parts or units. A polymer can be thought of as a chain in which each link is the “mer,” or monomer (single unit).(1)

Polymers can appear naturally in forms such as wool, cotton, silk, tar, shellac, cellulose and wood. There are also synthetic polymers, which became prevalent in the 20th century as chemists were able engineer desired properties (strength, stiffness, density, resistance to heat and electrical conductivity) out of the materials. (1)(2)


  1. Science of Plastics [Internet]. Science History Institute. 2019 [cited 13 May 2019]. Available from: Science of Plastics (web link)

  2. Polymers and plastics: a chemical introduction [Internet]. 2019 [cited 13 May 2019]. Available from: Polymers and plastics (web link)

© University of Wollongong, 2019
This article is from the free online

How to Survive on Earth: Energy Materials for a Sustainable Future

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education