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Teaching organic polymer chemistry.

It is said that half of the world's chemists are involved in some way with polymers. Yet, paradoxically, relatively little polymer chemistry is taught in universities and colleges. This state of affairs has grave implications for the polymer industries, as is regularly pointed out in the literature. Almost the sole reason for the paucity of courses is a lack of student interest, generally attributed to an unwillingness to be committed to what is largely viewed as an unknown subject of dubious relevance. For those few students who do appreciate the scope of polymer chemistry, there is the further deterrent of widespread antiplastics opinion. Plastics are the most visible polymers and have become major villains in confused debate raging over degradability, ozone depletion and waste management. Added to all this is a general disparagement of plastics, which are synthetic in a world that equates natural with good. Minimal student interest has meant the closure of polymer programmes at several institutions (including Ryerson) and even at institutions which specialize in polymer studies, enrolment figures tend to be precariously low.

Despite the limitations applied to extensive teaching of polymer chemistry, many institutions do offer a single one-semester course. Such a course is frequently included as an option in the final year of a programme in chemistry or applied chemistry, intended to make graduates more 'marketable'. A course of this kind is generally slanted, either towards physical polymer chemistry and materials science, or towards organic polymer chemistry. The slant depends, to a large extent, on the bent of the instructor assigned. This article is concerned with the latter type of course. The design of the one-semester course in organic polymer chemistry I teach at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute is described here. This course is offered as an optional course in the fourth year of a degree (B.Tech) programme in applied chemistry and biology. Although the students in this programme are well versed in life sciences, they often appear to find polymer chemistry difficult. It may be they are so concerned with, for example, codons and active sites they fail to focus on the inherent polymeric structure of nucleic acids and proteins.

Organic polymer chemistry is a very large subject and it is not easy to decide what to omit in a course restricted to one semester. My guiding rule is to include only technologically useful polymers; materials used as adhesives, fibres, paints, plastics and rubbers. This restriction gives the course a firm focus. In this way, too, overlap with the biochemistry content of the programme is avoided; only synthetic polymers are dealt with, apart from cellulose and natural rubber. The general outline of the course is:

1. Basic concepts-definition, scope, general methods of

polymer preparation, polymerization techniques,

polymer structure;

2. Polyolefins-polyethylene, ethylene copolymers, polypropylene,

propylene copolymers, butyl rubber;

3. Polystyrene and styrene copolymers-polystyrene,


4. Poly(vinyl chloride) and vinyl chloride copolymers - PVC, vinyl acetate and vinylidene chloride copolymers;

5. Poly(vinyl acetate) and poly(vinyl alcohol);

6. Acrylic polymers-PMMA, acrylic copolymers, PAN;

7 .Fluoropolymers-PTFE;

8. Aliphatic polyethers-polyformaldehyde;

9. Polyamides-nylons;

10. Polyesters-unsaturated polyesters, alkyds, PET, PBT;

11. p-Phenylene polymers-polycarbonates, polysulphones;

12. Cellulosics-cellulose, regenerated cellulose, cellulose

nitrate, cellulose acetate;

13. Phenol-formaldehyde polymers;

14. Aminopolymers-UF, MF;

15. Polyurethanes;

16. Silicones;

17. Epoxies;

18. Polydienes-natural rubber, polyisoprene, polybutadiene,

SBR, NBR, polychloroprene. Even with this rather restricted list of polymers, time does not usually allow all of them to be covered in class. Very often, the final selection of polymers discussed is determined by the forthcoming job interviews anticipated by members of the group! The material presented in class is strictly limited to what might be termed technological chemistry, ie. chemistry relating to commercially useful processes. I wrote the textbook used for the course: this book has the same theme.1 In those institutions where time is available for a second course in organic polymer chemistry, there are many specialized topics that can be taught: raw materials, polymerization mechanisms, specialty polymers, degradation, recycling, additives and composites. Students who have taken this one-semester course in organic polymer chemistry have said they had previously had no idea that polymers were such interesting materials. That is praise indeed! References 1. K.J. Saunders, Organic Polymer Chemistry, 2nd Edition, Chapman and Hall, London, 1988.
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Author:Saunders, Keith J.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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