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What is a Copolymer?

By Adam Hill
Updated May 17, 2024
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In chemistry, a polymer is a chain of molecules made by linking many small molecules together. Polymers come in different varieties, one kind being the copolymer. A copolymer is made when two different types of molecules are joined in the same polymer chain.

Each of the two types of molecules is called a monomer, and the arrangement of the monomers leads to different categories and subcategories of copolymers. For example, an alternating copolymer consists of regularly alternating monomers A and B, so the copolymer chain goes: A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B. A random copolymer is one with random sequences of A and B, such as B-A-A-A-B-A-B-A-A-B-B. Periodic copolymers are yet more complicated, since they consist of A and B monomers arranged in a repeating sequence. For instance, if the A and B sequence described in the second example above were to repeat without changing, even though the sequence itself seems random, this would be a periodic copolymer.

Block copolymers have perhaps the simplest structure, yet also the strangest attributes. These copolymers are made up of “blocks” where all of one type of monomer are grouped together, with all those of the other kind being grouped together. It is as if two ordinary polymers were joined together at the ends. In these compounds, the two monomers behave in a manner that scientists call phase separation.

Phase separation is the same thing that happens when oil and water -- two incompatible substances -- separate in a container. However, the compounds in block copolymers are atomically bonded together, so instead of visually separating like oil and water, they separate on a microscopic scale. This separation in the blocks forms very small, but very rigid structures. These substances are strong enough that some types of block copolymers are used in shoe soles and automobile tires. It is also interesting to note that block copolymers can be made up not just of two monomers, but in some cases up to five or more.

Another way of categorizing copolymers is by the shape of the structures formed by the polymer chains. Linear copolymers are just one single chain, whereas branched copolymers have a main chain with other chains branching off to the side at intervals. A common type of branched copolymer is the graft copolymer, where the main chain consists just of monomer A, and the branches consist only of monomer B.

In this case, both monomers can lend properties to the finished graft copolymer. One example would be high-impact polystyrene. It has a polystyrene main chain which gives the material its strength. Grafted onto the polystyrene backbone are chains of the compound polybutadiene, which gives the material a resilience that ordinary polystyrene lacks.

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Discussion Comments

By GluedAlive — On Dec 17, 2017

In reply to Post 3, the answer is yes. Copolymers can be used for harmful purposes! I had skin exposure to an acrylic comonomer miniemulsion (after using this in cement in place of water when mixing and then chipping back a small overpour 8 months later when the cement was hard as a rock - the oil carrier can still leach out and contained the unpolymerized acrylics which proceeded to polymerize in-situ in-vivo (in my soft tissue in my body), it migrated, caused a stroke by vascular occlusion, caused a midline nasopharyngeal perforation, pseudoscleroderma, panniculitis, chronic inflammatory syndrome, a chronic toxic hepatitis, endocrine disruption (threw me into a premature menopause), hypertrichosis, alopecia areata, chemosis, nodules and foreign body granuloma! The chemical crap that didn't label their product as skin absorptive, even though their MSDS said Routes of Entry: skin, inhalation, and ingestion (so they knew!) and violated Consumer Safety Regulations was Akona Concrete Bonding Additive, made by TCC Industries. My living hell!

By Contentum — On Mar 09, 2014

Although I would wonder if there are copolymers that might be used for harmful purposes? Such as weapons for the military? And what about the space exploration program? are there any types of this substance used in the building of their space faring vessels, or some of the equipment that they take into the skies with them?

By Grinderry — On Mar 09, 2014
With the way human beings use so many resources on this planet, its somewhat comforting to know that there are chemicals and compounds that can be combined to create something that we use, I'm sure there are things not listed here that are also composed of copolymers such as maybe tires, trash bags, and other things. If it weren't for man's expanding knowledge of the world around him we would still be living in the dark ages of the medieval times.
By Realited — On Mar 08, 2014

From the way it's described, these are simple chemicals that once combined become something even more diverse and complex than what they were before.

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