Polyethylene or polyethene is one of the simplest and most inexpensive polymers. It is a waxy, chemically inert plastic.
It is also known as polythene [Chiefly British] –a contraction of the name–and even more simply as PE.
H H \\ / C = C / \\ H H(The angles are somewhat different than shown in ASCII: The C-C-H bonds should all be around 120 degrees - the whole molecule is in a plane.)
H | R H C H R \\ | / | \\ | / C H C | |(R-CH2-CH2-CH2-R)
R indicates that the chain consisting of the same compound CH2 continues.
Classification of polyethylenes
LDPE has many more branches than HDPE, which means that the chains do not "fit well" together. It has therefore less strong intermolecular forces as the instantaneous-dipole induced-dipole attraction is less. This results in a lower density and tensile strength, increased malleability and faster biodegradation. LDPE is created by free radical polymerization.
HDPE has virtually no branching and thus stronger intermolecular forces and tensile strength. The lack of branching is ensured by an appropriate choice of catalyst (e.g. Ziegler catalysts) and reaction conditions.
The most common household use of LDPE is in plastic bags; the most common household use of HDPE is in containers for milk, liquid laundry detergent, etc. Significant uses of MDPE include plumbing fittings and enclosures for inexpensive consumer devices. LLDPE is used primarily in flexible tubing.
Recently, much research activity has focused on Long Chain Branched polyethylene. This is essentially HDPE, but has a small amount (perhaps 1 in 100 or 1000 branches per backbone carbon) of very long branches. These materials combine the strength of HDPE with the processability of LDPE.
Polyethylene was first synthesized by the German chemist Hans von Pechmann, who prepared it by accident in 1898 while heating diazomethane. When his colleagues Eugen Bamberger and Friedrich Tschirner characterized the white, waxy subsance he had created, they recognized that in contained long -CH2- chains and termed it polymethylene.
The first industrially practical polyethylene synthesis was discovered (again by accident) by Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson at ICI Chemicals in 1933. Upon applying extrememly high pressure (several hundred atmospheres) to a mixture of ethylene and benzaldehyde, they again produced a white waxy material. Since the reaction had been initiated by trace oxygen contaminantion in their apparatus, the experiment was at first difficult to reproduce, and 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 centered 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 John Hoganat Phillips Petroleum. In 1953, the German chemist Karl Ziegler developed a catalytic system based on titanium halides and organoaluminum compounds that worked at even milder conditions than the Phillips catalyst. By the end of the 1950s both the Phillips and Ziegler type catalysts were being used in HDPE production.
A third type of catalytic system, one based on metallocenes, was discovered in 1976 in Germany by in Walter Kaminsky and Hansjörg Sinn. The Ziegler and metallocene families of catalyst 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 VLDPE, LLDPE, and MDPE.
Until recently, the metallocenes were the most active single-site catalysts for ethylene polymerisation known - new catalysts are typically compared to zirconocene dicholride. 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 has demonstrated that certain iminophenolate complexes of Group IV metals show substantially higher activity than the metallocenes.