By definition, polymers (or synonymous "macromolecules") are very big molecules that contain more than 1000 atoms (up to millions). They are mainly based on the chemistry of the element carbon, but they are many inorganic polymers, too. Since the second half of the 20th century, polymers have become the primary material of mankind. Complementing natural polymeric materials such as wood, cellulose fiber, wool, leather, or natural rubber that have been used by man from the beginning of history, synthetic polymers have made continuously their way to the top. The production of polymers increases every year and will continue to do so. In 2015, the world production of polymers was about 320 million tons.
The overwhelming success of polymers is the result of their unique combination of properties. Typically, polymers have low weight, they are stable and tough, they don't rust, they are not toxic, their production is highly economic, they are easy to process, to shape and to dye, and - last not least - polymers can be easily adapted to most requirements and uses. Most importantly, the standard polymers are incredibly inexpensive compared to their performance. Polymers have therefore not only opened an access to many new products in our daily life as well as in technology. But they have been increasingly replacing traditional materials in many applications, not only because they are cheaper, but mostly because they are just better.
Illustration of importance of polymers in our life: "Kunststoffe - Luxus für alle" ( size <850KB) ©2003
Polymer materials can be divided in two groups, namely "commodities" and "specialities". Commodity polymers are produced from a few simple starting compounds. They are very inexpensive and they are used in large amounts. Most widespread are polyethylene, polypropylene, poly(vinyl chloride), polystyrene and poly(ethylene terephthalate). These five materials cost less then 1 €/kg and cover more than 80% of the world production of polymers.
In contrast, speciality polymers are made from many different, more complicated starting compounds ("monomers"), or from complex mixtures. They are more costly, but can be tailored for nearly every use. Consequently, they are used in traditional applications as well as in high technology, and are (albeit hardly noticed by the public) often at the base for the continuous progress in air and space technology, computer and IT technology, or medical technology. Though prices for speciality polymers are usually still low to moderate (below 10 €/kg), certain specialities can be more expensive than gold or diamonds.
The research in the Laschewsky group is focused on speciality polymers, using both design principles. On the one hand, we take standard, relatively simple monomers and assemble them into complicated molecular architectures, similar to constructing complex buildings from a limited number of different bricks. On the other hand, we design and synthesize new complicated monomers in which the future function is already firmly imprinted before their assembly into polymers.