3DChem.com - Chemistry, Structures & 3D Molecules a visual and interactive website showcasing the beautiful world of chemistry

Polypropylene (Molecule of the Month for April 2007)


Polypropylene is a thermoplastic polymer, made by the chemical industry and used in a wide variety of applications, including food packaging, textiles, plastic parts and reusable containers of various types, thermal pants and shirts made for the military, laboratory equipment, loudspeakers, automotive components, and polymer banknotes.

Most commercial polypropylene has an intermediate level of crystallinity between that of low density polyethylene (LDPE) and high density polyethylene (HDPE); its Young's modulus is also intermediate. Although it is less tough than HDPE and less flexible than LDPE, it is much less brittle than HDPE. This allows polypropylene to be used as a replacement for engineering plastics,

An important concept in understanding the link between the structure of polypropylene and its properties is tacticity. The relative orientation of each methyl group (CH3 in the figure at left) relative to the methyl groups on neighboring monomers has a strong effect on the finished polymer's ability to form crystals, because each methyl group takes up space and constrains backbone bending. Like most other vinyl polymers, useful polypropylene cannot be made by radical polymerization. The material that results from such a process has methyl groups arranged randomly, and so is called atactic. The lack of long-range order prevents any crystallinity in such a material, giving an amorphous material with very little strength and few redeeming qualities. A Ziegler-Natta catalyst seems to be able to limit incoming monomers to a specific orientation, only adding them to the polymer chain if they face the right direction. Most commercially available polypropylene is made with titanium chloride catalysts, which produce mostly isotactic polypropylene (the upper chain in the figure above). With the methyl group consistently on one side, such molecules tend to coil into a helical shape; these helices then line up next to one another to form the crystals that give commercial polypropylene its strength. More precisely-engineered Kaminsky catalysts have been made, which offer a much greater level of control. Based on metallocene molecules, these catalysts use organic groups to control the monomers being added, so that a proper choice of catalyst can produce isotactic, syndiotactic, or atactic polypropylene, or even a combination of these. Aside from this qualitative control, they allow better quantitative control, with a much greater ratio of the desired tacticity than provious Ziegler-Natta techniques. They also produce higher molecular weights than traditional catalysts, which can further improve properties.

Formal Chemical Name (IUPAC)



Picture of Polypropylene

click on the picture above to interact
with the 3D model of the
Polypropylene structure
(this will open a new browser window)

Picture of Polypropylene


Update by Karl Harrison
(Molecule of the Month for April 2007 )