What is Acrylic? - Definition & Chemical Composition

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

Acrylic is a polymer used in several different applications. We will learn what the general repeating structure of acrylics is and how they will form polymers.

Acrylic Definition

We have acrylic paint, acrylic nails, acrylic plastic, and many other acrylic products. So what exactly is 'acrylic'? Acrylic is any compound that includes acrylic acid or related compounds called acrylates. Typically the products that are called 'acrylic' is a polymer of acrylic acids or acrylates. A polymer is a long strand of repeating sections, in this case the repeating sections are the acrylic acids or acrylates.

Chemical Structure

In order to understand the structure of acrylic, we first need to examine the structures of acrylic acid and other acrylates. Acrylic acid has the chemical formula of CH 2 CHCOOH. So, it is a 3-carbon compound starting with a carboxylic acid and between carbons 2 and 3 is a double bond:

Acrylic acid structure
Acrylic acid

Acrylic acid, when it isn't in a polymer form, is a clear liquid and has a very tart scent.

Methyl compounds don't like having a double bond, so that double bond will easily react with each other forming a polymer in order to get rid of the double bond on the terminal carbon.

Acrylates are acrylic acid compounds where the hydrogen has been removed on the COOH group and replaced with another group. Acrylates may also have additional substituents on carbons 2 and 3. These acrylates can include:

  • Methylmethacrylate


  • Butyl Acrylate

Butyl acrylate

  • Ethyl Acrylate

Ethyl Acrylate

  • Trimethylolpropane triacrylate (TMPTA)


Types of Polymers

The different compounds are made from the different types of acrylates. For example, we can see the acrylic acid polymer here:

Purple lines indicate new bonds formed to bind the acrylic acid compounds together, these bonds came from the double bonds
Poly acrylic acid

This chain can keep going on and on until it runs out of acrylic acid compounds to react with. Polymers made from acrylic acid, called polyacrylic acid (PAA), are a super absorbent material and are used in diapers.

Each of the other polymers appears very similar to PAA, for example methyl methacrylate simply has a different 'tail' but the polymer still forms at the double bond:

The purple lines indicate new bonds that formed, the squiggly lines indicate that this polymer continues on in that direction
PMAA structure

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