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A Polymer By Chance
The first commercial production of polyethylene (poly(ethene)) started with an accident. On the basis of only 8 g of solid material ICI launched a major development programme and devised a gas phase process. It worked at pressures between 1000 -3000atm, and temperatures of 200 - 320oC. The material produced by this process is low density polyethylene or ldpe.
The first use of the new material was for insulating radar cables during the war, allowing Britain to have airborne radar.
A Lancaster (above) and the Radar used in the aircraft (below)
Poly(ethene) was then a top-secret material
Post war it became commercially available. It is a soft material with a low melting point, with long branches and broad range of molecular mass.
     Facts about ldpe
  • mol mass 500 (waxy) - 60,000 (very tough)
  • long and short chain branching
  • can incorporate wide range of co-monomers along the polymer chain.
  • Good toughness and pliability over moderately wide temp range.


a What do you think are the disadvantages of the process for manufacturing poly(ethene)?

b As industrial chemists what improvements would you want to make to the process?

c How might they be achieved?

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