Synthetic Materials: The Artificial Wonders

Synthetic materials are derived materials from natural ones that achieve in minutes, which otherwise would take months to achieve. These materials are in fact natural materials with altered sequences, characteristics, uses, activation energies, etc. Many different types of synthetic materials are seen nowadays including; synthetic fibers, ceramics, plastics, synthetic fuels, medicines, etc.

What are Synthetic Materials?

When humans knowingly or accidentally mix different substances together, they create new types of substances that sometimes turn out to be much more useful than the original materials.

A material scientist or chemist looks for the connections between the properties of the materials and their structures. This information is later used to improve those materials by either providing different conditions for synthesis, etc, or by reacting with another substance.

Scientists are trying every day to create more and more new substances, for they are usually cheap and more sophisticated in doing something as compared to natural materials. Therefore;

Every synthetic material (new or old) is a technology

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Biomimicry: A Synthetic Approach to Science

Past generations have tried their best to tame science and bring her to her knees. These efforts have over time transformed into a more enthusiastic approach to unraveling her secrets and creating an artificial and synthetic approach to doing everything mother nature does.

Biomimicry contains such disciplines where synthetic materials are built, taking the inspiration from natural materials, and therefore a new and synthetic world is being built day by day. The primary purpose of such activities is to reduce the pressure on natural resources and to produce more interesting features in them by pushing forward, the frontiers of scientific and technological rooms.

List of Synthetic Materials

Some commonly used and well-known synthetic materials are as:

  1. Glass
  2. Steel
  3. Synthetic fibers
  4. Artificial foods
  5. Medicines
  6. Composite materials
  7. Epoxy resins
  8. Synthetic paper
  9. Plastics
  10. Polyethylene (PE)
  11. Polyvinylchloride (PVC)
  12. Polyethylene tetraphthalate polymer (PET)
  13. Artificial ceramics (Bone china, etc)
  14. Synthetic fuels or synfuels (diesel oil, methanol, etc)
  15. Lab-grown gems (diamonds, sapphires, rubies, etc)
  16. Super bacteria designed to eat oil spills
  17. Teflon (Polytetrafluoroethylene)-(PTFE)
  18. Nitinol (Ni-Ti alloy) (A shape memory alloy)
  19. Neoprene, buna rubbers, butyl rubbers – (Rubber alternatives)
  20. Cement / Concrete (The most widely used synthetic material in the world)

Properties of Synthetic materials

Highly usable Synthetic fibers

Synthetic fibers are very durable and very resistant to wrinkles. They are elastic and have high stretchability. They can sustain heavy loads and are very strong.

Most commonly used synthetic fibers are:

  • KevlarTM
  • Polyesters
  • Acetate fibers
  • Acrylics
  • Cellulase fibers
  • Lyocell
  • Nylon polymer
  • Micro-fibers
  • Polypropylene fiber
  • Polyvinylchloride (PVC) fabrics
  • Rayon (Viscose)
  • Spandex/ Lycra/ Elastane

Synthetic fibers are most commonly used in:

Synthetic materials

High tensile strength

The most common property of synthetic materials is their tensile behavior as most of the time, these materials are prepared to withstand high pressures. Different materials have different tensile strengths but usually, these tensile strengths are more than their natural precursor materials.

The high tensile strength of nylon makes it highly useable in making ropes, etc. Similarly, synthetic fibers can withstand more weight than natural fibers for which they are used in marine, aerospace, and automotive purposes.

Moisture absorption

Synthetic materials, especially fibers absorb much less water than their natural alternatives. This property makes these materials useable for making sports kits, umbrellas, raincoats, etc.

Heat and Flame resistant synthetic materials

Kevlar, Nomex, Nylon, and many other synthetic materials are used to keep off the fire. Polyesters are also sometimes used as fire or heat-resistant materials for camping. Fiberglass tissues covered with Teflon (PTFE) are used today to make heat and ignition-less suits and tents in many parts of the world.

Non-Environment Friendly

Synthetic materials are non-biodegradable as they are the by-products of petroleum reactions. Synthetic fibers alone are held responsible for 20% of overall industrial pollution in the world.

Polyesters degrade more quickly than other synthetic materials like nylon. A mixture of nylon and polyester can take up to 40 years to decompose.

Thermal conductivity

Generally, the thermal conductivity of synthetic substances is very low i.e. in the order of (0.1-0.5 W.m-1.K-1). The primary reason for such low conductivity is the complex structure of polymeric chains. Some such materials also have high thermal conductance. For example;

  • Silk has low thermal conductivity i.e. 0.083 W.m-1.K-1
  • Linen has a high thermal conductivity i.e. 0.188 W.m-1.K-1

Electrical conductivity

Similar to thermal conductivities, synthetic materials also show low electric conductivities. Synthetic substances accumulate static charges in the course of their conduction process, which makes this a significant disadvantage of synthetic materials.

Static build-up in synthetic materials

Static buildup or charge storage is a phenomenon when two bodies exchange charges when they come into contact. It is a surface phenomenon and leads to several unwanted properties.

The charge accumulation instead of conductance significantly complicates their processing. This sometimes results in discharging a spark which leads to fires, explosions, and other incidents.

Surface Functionalization

Surface functionalization is an effective and simpler phenomenon of altering the surface properties of a material. It includes the addition of advanced properties, extra capabilities, and new functions to the surface chemistry of synthetic materials.

Cost-Effectiveness

Synthetic materials are much cheaper than natural materials. They are produced from cheap raw materials and are produced in enormous quantities. Such wide productions and low costs make it even more usable and preferable than their natural alternatives or precursors.

Wide fabrication

A large number of synthetic materials have been fabricated into aerogels like metals, metal oxides, polymers, carbon materials, cellulose, etc. Due to such wide fabrications, aerogels are thought to be a big boom for future inventions.

Pros of Synthetic materials

  • Durable
  • Wrinkle-free
  • High tensile strength
  • Heat and flame resistant
  • Soft fibers
  • Cheaper than natural ones
  • Long-lasting
  • Water-resistant
  • The ability of surface functionalization
  • Fabrication applications
  • Moisture resistant
  • Highly elasticity

Cons of Synthetic materials

  • Non-biodegradable (Non-environment friendly)
  • Carcinogenic materials
  • Chemical pollution
  • Production of toxic fumes
  • Consume more energy
  • Embrittlement
  • Static build-up (charge accumulation)
  • Do not absorb water
  • Offer less breathability, leading to dermatitis
  • Require more amount of energy to be manufactured which impacts climate

Concepts Berg

What are synthetic fabrics?

Synthetic fibers are specially designed fibers with many advantages which have overtaken and have revolutionized the textile industry.

What are the common synthetic materials?

Common synthetic materials include:

  • Concrete
  • Synthetic fibers
  • Glass
  • Steel
  • Bronze
  • Teflon, etc

Is plastic a synthetic material?

Plastics exist both as natural and synthetic materials. Synthetic plastics are buna rubbers, butyl rubbers, neoprene, etc.

Is glass a synthetic material?

Glass is a synthetic material produced by sand. It forms when sand is heated to a very high temperature along with other raw materials.

Is cotton a synthetic material?

Cotton is a synthetic fiber, so it is a synthetic material as well.

How are synthetic materials made?

Synthetic substances are made by intermixing two or more natural components i.e. raw material for the synthetic process to begin. Most commonly, these materials are the result of any polymerization reaction which later on leads to new and never seen before properties and aspects.

What is the oldest synthetic material in the world?

The first synthetic material was Bakelite, invented in 1907. Some historians also claim linen or pa[ayrus to be the first synthetic materials dating back to 3400 B.C.

Reference Books

  • Advanced Synthetic Materials in Detection Science edited by Professor Subrayal M Reddy (University of Surrey, Guildford, UK) published by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC)
  • Material Science By PleasantValleysd.org

Reference links

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