What is an Elastomer? - Definition, Properties & Examples

Instructor: Derrick Arrington

Derrick has a master's degree in science education and has taught at the high school and community college level for 13 years.

You have probably encountered an elastomer today. In this lesson, we will learn about the properties of compounds known as elastomers and identify some materials that are considered to be elastomers.

Elastomers in Our Lives

Every day we deal with and depend on products that have been developed through discovery and experimentation. As our understanding of the chemical properties of matter evolves, beneficial new products are developed. Many of the items we count on are made from elastomers. The tires that allow your car to move smoothly down the road, the rubber storage containers in our closets, and countless other things that have flexible molecular structures are all elastomers. What makes these items flex and return to their original shape? Why are some objects more rigid than others? What holds these materials together? Let's use this opportunity to learn about elastomers.

Definition of Elastomer

In chemistry, substances that are made of long chains of molecules are known as polymers. A polymer with both viscous and elastic properties is known as an elastomer. Let's break that down a bit. A viscous substance is one that has a thick, sticky, consistency somewhere between the states of a solid and a gas. The level of viscosity of a liquid determines how fast or slow it flows. If you have ever poured oil from a container you know that it pours much slower than water. This is because it is more viscous. Another example of a viscous substance is the thick slow moving lava that flows from a volcano. The term elastic refers to the tendency of an object to return to its original shape after being stretched or compressed. If you have ever pulled on a rubber band and had it snap back to its original form after being stretched you have experienced elasticity.

Properties of Elastomers

The bonds that hold many compounds together in chemistry are very strong relative to their size. These bond forces determine the flexibility with regard to the compound's ability to be manipulated into various shapes. Elastomers have weak intermolecular forces. Intermolecular forces are forces of attraction and repulsion between molecules and other neighboring particles. Since elastomers are not tightly held together by attractions in their nucleus, they are able to be stretched apart and have a higher failure strain than many other compounds. Non-elastic compounds are made of materials that will fail or fall apart at the molecular level when they are strained. Given this property, it makes sense that elastomers are most commonly made from elements such as carbon, hydrogen, silicon, and oxygen, which are known to hold together well in many conditions.

As a general consensus, there are basically two categories of elastomers, thermoset and thermoplastic. Thermoset elastomers do not melt when they are heated. They retain their structure when exposed to many environmental conditions. This property makes them very useful in industry where heat and pressure are applied at various levels because they will not break down. Thermoplastic elastomers can be melted and reformed into different shapes and configurations depending on their use. When thinking of thermoplastic elastomers one helpful trick is to think of a stick of butter. The stick can be melted and cooled many times and molded into different shapes while still retaining its original properties.

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