Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Polymers

Main Difference – Natural vs Synthetic Polymers

Polymers are macromolecules that are made out of small units called monomers. Polymers include a wide variety of compounds that are very useful in our day to day life. These polymers can be classified in many ways such as according to the structure, according to chemical or physical properties, etc. The basic classification of polymers includes two groups known as natural polymers and synthetic polymers. Natural polymers are polymer compounds that can be found in our environment. Synthetic polymers are polymer compounds that are produced artificially. This is the main difference between natural polymers and synthetic polymers.

Key Areas Covered

1. What are Natural Polymers
      – Definition, Occurrence, Examples
2. What are Synthetic Polymers
      – Definition, Production, Examples
3. What is the Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Polymers
     – Comparison of Key Differences

Key Terms: Degradation, Natural Polymer, Rubber, Synthetic Polyamides, Polyethylene, Polymer, Polymerization, Polynucleotides, Polysaccharides

Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Polymers - Comparison Summary

What are Natural Polymers

Natural polymers are polymer compounds that can be found naturally in our environment. Most chemical compounds in biological systems are polymer compounds. These natural polymers are mainly found in three types as polysaccharides, polyamides, and polynucleotides.

Polysaccharides include polymers that are composed of monosaccharide units. The most common monosaccharides are glucose, fructose, galactose, etc. Polysaccharides can be found in animals and plants. For example, starch is a polysaccharide that can be found in plants as the storage carbohydrate. Glycogen is a polysaccharide that can be found in animals as the storage carbohydrate.

Polyamides include proteins and other naturally occurring polymers that have peptide bonds. These are called polyamides due to the presence of a number of amide groups all over the polymer. Proteins are made out of amino acids. Therefore, amino acids are the monomers of proteins. Small proteins are also called polypeptides since there are several peptide bonds in those polymers. Proteins are the major structural components of animals and plants. Some common examples of proteins include silk, wool in plants and enzymes such as amylase in animals.

Main Difference - Natural vs Synthetic Polymers

Figure 1: Spider Webs are Made out of a Protein

Polynucleotides include DNA and RNA. These are polymer compounds made out of monomers known as nucleotides. A nucleotide is composed of a sugar molecule bonded to a nitrogenous base and a phosphate group. These nucleotides are bonded to each other via covalent bonds, forming the polymer known as polynucleotides. DNA and RNA can be found in any living organisms: plants, animals, bacteria, etc.

Apart from that, natural rubber is a very important polymer that can be found in rubber tree as its latex. Therefore, it is a polymer that can be found in plants. This polymer is named as cis-1,4-polyisoprene. It is the polymer of isoprene.

What are Synthetic Polymers

Synthetic polymers are polymer compounds that are produced artificially by humans. These polymer productions are done in laboratories or in factories based on the need. These polymers are produced using several chemical reactions. Therefore, depending on the type of chemical reaction used, polymers can be further categorized.

The production of synthetic polymers was inspired by natural polymers. People made polymers by examining the chemical structures of natural polymers. These polymers are mainly produced from petroleum oil. Synthetic polymers can be further categorized depending on the method of production, components used in production, etc.; for example, some polymers are synthesized by condensation polymerization whereas some other polymers are made from addition polymerization. The polymers obtained from condensation polymerization are called condensation polymers. Polymers obtained by addition polymerization are known as addition polymers.

Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Polymers

Figure 2: Polyethylene Balls

Moreover, synthetic polymers can be categorized as organic polymers or inorganic polymers. Organic polymers are composed of hydrocarbon units whereas inorganic polymers are not composed of hydrocarbons. Some common examples of synthetic polymers are polyethylene, polypropylene, Teflon, polystyrene, etc.

Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Polymers

Definition

Natural Polymers: Natural polymers are polymer compounds that can be found naturally in our environment.

Synthetic Polymers: Synthetic polymers are polymer compounds that are produced artificially by humans.

Occurrence

Natural Polymers: Natural polymers occur naturally.

Synthetic Polymers: Synthetic polymers do not occur naturally.

Production

Natural Polymers: Natural polymers are produced from biological processes.

Synthetic Polymers: Synthetic polymers are produced from chemical processes.

Degradation

Natural Polymers: Most natural polymers are easily degraded by biological processes.

Synthetic Polymers: Most synthetic polymers are hard to degrade naturally by biological processes.

Conclusion

Natural polymers and synthetic polymers are the two major categories of polymers. Natural polymers include polymer compounds that can be found naturally in our environment. But synthetic polymers are compounds made by humans that cannot be found naturally. This is the key difference between natural and synthetic polymers.

References:

1. “Natural Polymers: Definition, Types & Examples.” Study.com, Available here.
2. “Natural Polymers.” Polymer science learning center, Available here.
3. “Natural Polymers as Inspiration to Make (or Improve) Polymers.” Synthetic Polymers, Available here.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Spiderweb” By Josef F. Stuefer – originally posted to Flickr  (CC BY 2.0) via Commons Wikimedia
2. “Polyethylene balls9″ By Lluis tgn – Own work (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Commons Wikimedia

About the Author: Madhusha

Madhusha is a BSc (Hons) graduate in the field of Biological Sciences and is currently pursuing for her Masters in Industrial and Environmental Chemistry. Her interest areas for writing and research include Biochemistry and Environmental Chemistry.

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