What Is Polycarbonate?

September 1, 2017
What Is Polycarbonate?

In order to scrutinize the chemical structure of polycarbonate, we have to separate this multi-talented polymer from its family. Plastics are everywhere, but this carbonate-based variant is gifted with some very specific characteristics. First of all, it has a well-earned reputation as a tough synthetic, a versatile material that delivers big time when it comes to physical attributes. Used in everything from abrasion-resistant lens glass to bulletproof windows, the hardened plastic possesses properties that lean toward glass, but it’s a glass-like material enhanced with highly durable properties.

Anatomy of a Durable Polymer

Polycarbonate is a lightweight, durable thermoplastic, a material that combines rigid six-sided phenyl molecules with short-armed methyl groups to produce a strengthened backbone. The carbonate groups bond together in long chains to infuse the material with innate strength. You’ll see windows made from the plastic installed in banks to protect tellers from armed thieves. Also, the polymer is a common component in the production of safety goggles and is easily equally popular in the eyeglass industry. As at home in sunglasses as in prescription lenses, the material is often engineered to be optically transparent, but opaque examples of the polymer are in use. Non light transmitting variants commonly focus on heat transmission properties, machinability factors, and rigidity characteristics as applied to plastic housings.

Polycarbonate as a Group

It’s best to imagine the polymer as a group of tough thermoplastics because the molecular structure of the polymer can be tailored to produce different variants. A lightweight version with anti-abrasion properties makes for an excellent DVD coating. A shatterproof window variant, for example, uses “bisphenol A” as the backbone carbonate group, whereas a product defined by its high refractive index goes through additional stages, including cross-linking and the infusion of secondary monomer additives. The process can get quite convoluted, but all this refraction-enhancing work really adds up to is a superior pair of eyeglasses, a material that bends light more efficiently than glass and can even polarize that light to produce better sunglasses.

Carbonate reinforced thermoplastics are among the toughest engineering polymers available today. Their popularity has revolutionized the way we look at plastic, illustrating the material as a near shatterproof material, something we all saw on display when CD and DVD commercials first filled our television screens. But physical strength is only part of the skill set of this versatile polymer. It can also be manufactured and graded to excel in other areas. Moving away from the “bulletproof” rep, these variants use carbon dioxide and other catalysing agents to produce a diverse range of products. They focus on thermal stability and chemical neutrality, positioning this particular polymer as a chemical and heat hero as well as a physical tough guy.