Chemistry - Polymers (AQA Syllabus A)

One of the topics covered in GCSE Science is the chemistry of crude oils and of other fuels. This is the last of six quizzes on that particular subject and it focusses in particular on plastics - the polymers which are manufactured from crude oil.

Crude oil straight from the ground is not a particularly useful material but, after fractional distillation, it provides us with many different types of fuel. These fuels are all members of one large chemical family, the alkanes. But when some of the fractions of crude oil are 'cracked', a whole new world of chemistry opens up. The reason for this is that cracking produces a new family of chemicals, one which wasn't present in the oil to begin with. This new family of chemicals is the alkenes.

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The alkenes are so useful because they are 'unsaturated'. That means that they contain at least one double bond between carbon atoms. This double bond means that they are more reactive than the alkanes and in different ways too. They can be made into aldehydes, alcohols and all manner of other chemicals but probably the best known and most useful in everyday life are the polymers.

Polymers take different forms. Cellulose is a natural polymer that is made by plants. This is not a polymer of an alkene but of glucose molecules, joined together in long chains. Rubber is a polymer too. But the polymers that this quiz is all about are the polymers that can be made from oil and oil products - these are the plastics.

The simplest of the alkenes is ethene. This is two carbon atoms joined together by a double bond. Attached to each of the carbon atoms are two hydrogen atoms so the formula is C2H4. Ethene molecules can be joined together to form long chains or polymers making the plastic that you know as polythene. Polythene is a trademark invented by the chemical company ICI. Its scientific name is poly(ethene).

The chemicals from which a polymer is made are called monomers. So, if the starting chemical, the monomer, is styrene, the polymer made from it is polystyrene and so on. So actually, you can often work out the starting chemical from the name of a polymer. The scientifically accepted way of writing the name of a polymer is poly(ethene), but it is also commonly written as polyethene.

Try this quiz to see how well you understand the chemistry of the polymers.

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  1. Cracking fractions of crude oil produces smaller alkane molecules and alkenes. Which of the following is not an alkene?
    The general formula for an alkene is CnH2n where n represents the number of atoms. In other words, any compound made from only carbon and hydrogen is an alkene if the number of hydrogen atoms is exactly double the number of carbon atoms
  2. Why are alkanes so useful as monomers?
    The double bond between carbon atoms is easier to break than single bonds
  3. How is a double bond represented?
    A short line resembling a 'dash' is used to represent a covalent chemical bond. In cases where there is more than one covalent bond between two atoms, the dashes are stacked one on top of each other
  4. How are polymers made from alkenes?
    The process is referred to as addition polymerisation. A polymer is a long chain molecule and its poperties depend on the molecules used to make it and the conditions used during polymerisation
  5. What do scientists call the small molecules that are joined together to make polymers?
    This is because the prefix mono- means one on its own. The prefix poly- means many
  6. What monomer is used to make poly(propene)?
    The clue is in the name and you are looking for an alkene
  7. Which of the following is a use for polymers?
    There are very few everyday items that can't be made from polymers
  8. Which of the following is not an advantage of polymers?
    Microbes cannot usually break down polymers so they will remain in the environment. This creates problems with waste disposal
  9. How are scientists trying to make products made with polymers biodegradeable?
    Cornstarch is biodegradeable. Adding cornstarch molecules into the polymer chains allows microbes such as bacteria and fungi to chop the polymer chains into smaller particles, thus breaking down the polymer. This is not a perfect solution since you end up with lots of small pieces of polymer molecules in the environment but at least it gets rid of the massive pieces of plastic that litter the world
  10. What is the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of your used plastic items?
    The raw material for plastics is oil. At some point in the future, all of the Earth's oil reserves will have been used up. As well as being good for the environment, recycling plastics is a great way of making oil reserves last longer

Author: Kev Woodward

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