AskDefine | Define polyethylene

Dictionary Definition

polyethylene n : a lightweight thermoplastic; used especially in packaging and insulation [syn: polythene]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A polymer consisting of many ethylene monomers bonded together; used for kitchenware, containers etc.




Extensive Definition

Polyethylene or polythene (IUPAC name poly(ethene)) is a thermoplastic commodity heavily used in consumer products (notably the plastic shopping bag). Over 60 million tons of the material are produced worldwide every year.


Polyethylene is a polymer consisting of long chains of the monomer ethylene (IUPAC name ethene). The recommended scientific name polyethene is systematically derived from the scientific name of the monomer. In certain circumstances it is useful to use a structure–based nomenclature. In such cases IUPAC recommends poly(methylene). Upon applying extremely high pressure (several hundred atmospheres) to a mixture of ethylene and benzaldehyde they again produced a white, waxy, material. Because the reaction had been initiated by trace oxygen contamination in their apparatus the experiment was, at first, difficult to reproduce. It was not until 1935 that another ICI chemist, Michael Perrin, developed this accident into a reproducible high-pressure synthesis for polyethylene that became the basis for industrial LDPE production beginning in 1939.
Subsequent landmarks in polyethylene synthesis have revolved around the development of several types of catalyst that promote ethylene polymerization at more mild temperatures and pressures. The first of these was a chromium trioxide-based catalyst discovered in 1951 by Robert Banks and J. Paul Hogan at Phillips Petroleum. In 1953 the German chemist Karl Ziegler developed a catalytic system based on titanium halides and organoaluminium compounds that worked at even milder conditions than the Phillips catalyst. The Phillips catalyst is less expensive and easier to work with, however, and both methods are used in industrial practice.
By the end of the 1950s both the Phillips- and Ziegler-type catalysts were being used for HDPE production. Phillips initially had difficulties producing a HDPE product of uniform quality and filled warehouses with off-specification plastic. However, financial ruin was unexpectedly averted in 1957 when the hula hoop, a toy consisting of a circular polyethylene tube, became a fad among youth in the United States.
A third type of catalytic system, one based on metallocenes, was discovered in 1976 in Germany by Walter Kaminsky and Hansjörg Sinn. The Ziegler and metallocene catalyst families have since proven to be very flexible at copolymerizing ethylene with other olefins and have become the basis for the wide range of polyethylene resins available today, including very low-density polyethylene and linear low-density polyethylene. Such resins, in the form of fibers like Dyneema, have (as of 2005) begun to replace aramids in many high-strength applications.
Until recently the metallocenes were the most active single-site catalysts for ethylene polymerisation known—new catalysts are typically compared to zirconocene dichloride. Much effort is currently being exerted on developing new, single-site (so-called post-metallocene) catalysts that may allow greater tuning of the polymer structure than is possible with metallocenes. Recently work by Fujita at the Mitsui corporation (amongst others) has demonstrated that certain salicylaldimine complexes of Group 4 metals show substantially higher activity than the metallocenes.

Physical properties

Depending on the crystallinity and molecular weight, a melting point and glass transition may or may not be observable. The temperature at which these occur varies strongly with the type of polyethylene. For common commercial grades of medium- and high-density polyethylene the melting point is typically in the range 120 to 130 °C ((250 to 265 °F). The melting point for average, commercial, low-density polyethylene is typically 105 to 115 °C (220 to 240 °F).
Most LDPE, MDPE and HDPE grades have excellent chemical resistance and do not dissolve at room temperature because of their crystallinity. Polyethylene (other than cross-linked polyethylene) usually can be dissolved at elevated temperatures in aromatic hydrocarbons such as toluene or xylene, or in chlorinated solvents such as trichloroethane or trichlorobenzene.

Environmental issues

The wide use of polyethylene makes it an important environmental issue. Though it can be recycled, most of the commercial polyethylene ends up in landfills and in the oceans (notably the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). Polyethylene is not considered biodegradable, as it takes several centuries until it is efficiently degraded. Recently (May 2008) Daniel Burd, a 16 year old Canadian, won the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa after discovering that Sphingomonas, a type of bacteria, can degrade over 40% of the weight of plastic bags in less than three months. The applicability of this finding is still a matter for the future.


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polyethylene in Bulgarian: Полиетилен
polyethylene in Catalan: Polietilè
polyethylene in Czech: Polyethylen
polyethylene in Danish: Polyethylen
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polyethylene in French: Polyéthylène
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polyethylene in Simple English: Polyethylene
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polyethylene in Ukrainian: Поліетилен
polyethylene in Chinese: 聚乙烯
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