Monomers vs. Polymers

Kelly Biddle, Meg Desko
  • Author
    Kelly Biddle

    Sr. Kelly Biddle, PhD, OP, has taught at both the community college and high school level for over 11 years. After earning degrees in both English and Biochemistry from Rice University in Houston, Texas, she went on to earn her doctorate in Molecular and Environmental Plant Sciences from Texas A&M University. Sr. Kelly has also taught ESL and GED and designed educational computer games.

  • Instructor
    Meg Desko

    Meg has taught college-level science. She holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry.

Learn about monomers and polymers. Understand what monomers and polymers are, how they are different, and how they are related. See an example of monomers and polymers. Updated: 09/23/2021

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What are Monomers and Polymers?

Living organisms are made of very large organic molecules called macromolecules (-macro is Greek for large or long; it's the opposite of -micro). Most macromolecules are polymers — long strands of repeating subunits. These subunits, or building blocks for polymers, are called monomers. Natural polymers make up most of the cellular structures that compose living beings, but they are not just found in living organisms. Many plastics and other human-made materials that make modern living possible are synthetic polymers composed of monomers that are made and conjoined in laboratories.

How are Monomers and Polymers Related?

The relationship between monomers and polymers is explained in their names. The suffix -mer comes from the Greek for part. The prefixes tell how many parts; mono- means one (a monomer is a single unit, just one building block) while poly- means much or many (a polymer is a string of hundreds or thousands of conjoined monomers).

Monomers vs. Polymers

Beads are monomers used to make necklaces (polymers), but like the monomer glucose (a small molecule with 6 carbon atoms) is used to make the polymer glycogen (a large, round molecule made of 1000s of conjoined glucose molecules).

In fact, specific prefixes can denote the lengths of certain polymers.

Name Description Example
Monomer One unit A monosaccharide is a single sugar molecule (e.g. glucose)
Dimer Two units joined together A disaccharide contains two sugars joined together (e.g. sucrose is made from a fructose monomer joined to a glucose monomer)
Trimer Three units joined together A triglyceride contains three fatty acids connected by a glycerol molecule
Polymer Many units joined together A polypeptide is a protein made of 100s or 1000s of connected amino acid subunits

Some polymers contain only one type of monomer — for example, the starch that potatoes and other plants use to store energy is made entirely of thousands (or millions) of glucose monomers — and only glucose monomers. Other polymers are copolymers, which contain a mix of different types of monomers. An example of a copolymer is nitrile rubber (used to make hypoallergenic gloves), a synthetic polymer made from a mixture of acrylonitrile and butadiene monomers.

The process of joining many monomers together to make a polymer is called polymerization. If the polymer being formed is a copolymer, the process can also be called copolymerization.

How are Monomers and Polymers Different?

The most important difference between monomers and polymers is that polymers are made of monomers. The inverse — monomers being made of polymers — is illogical and nonsensical.

The other key difference is that monomers are always quite small (usually between 10-50 atoms) while polymers usually contain thousands or even millions of atoms.

The easiest way to understand the difference between monomers and polymers is by analogy. Monomers are always the units used for construction — a Lego block, a bead, or a single train car. Polymers, on the other hand, are the larger structures made by combining the subunits — a Lego city, a necklace, or the Chicago elevated train system.

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Examples of Monomers and Polymers

Polymers can broadly be split into three main categories:

  • Natural Polymers, which are both produced by and used to construct living organisms
    • The biologically important polymers are carbohydrates, proteins, and nucleic acids.
    • Latex is also a natural rubber polymer produced by Rubber trees from South America (Hevea brasiliensis).
  • Synthetic Polymers, human-made products that must be synthesized in a lab using catalysts
    • The most common form of plastic is a polymer called polyethylene.
    • Styrofoam is the commercial name of the polymer polystyrene.
    • Nylon is an entire class of polymers called the polyamides.
  • Semi-synthetic Polymers, chemically modified natural polymers
    • Cellulose nitrate is derived from the cellulose that makes up plant cell walls; it is so combustible it can be used in place of gunpowder.
    • Rayon fiber, or cellulose acetate, is used to make a variety of yarns and fabrics.

Plastics: Polymer Examples

The most common, and famous, of the synthetic polymers is polyethylene, which is the most common polymer used to make plastics. As the name implies, polyethylene is a polymer of the compound ethylene, formula {eq}C_{2}H_{4} {/eq}. Polyethylene, like most other synthetic polymers, is a long chain of conjoined ethylene molecules, as shown in the picture. The extreme length of the polymer allows for strong intermolecular forces to form between the molecules, creating a strong, durable, yet flexible solid.

Polyethylene (Plastic)

A picture of small white chips of plastic, ready to be melted and formed is shown next to the structural formula of polyethylene - repeating CH2-CH2

Styrofoam is also a polymer, but it is made of styrene monomers. In fact, polystyrene can have different textures depending on how it is made and processed in the lab. To make Styrofoam, the polystyrene has to be extruded as a foam before solidifying, a process that makes the plastic ~95% air.

Polystyrene (Stryofoam)

A picture of a Styrofoam cup is next to the structural formula for Styrofoam, which is made of repeating styrene units.

The monomers adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine combine to make nylon, which makes it a coploymer. In fact, there are several different types of nylon polymers, each with slightly modified monomers. The most common nylon used to make rope is nylon 6 (the six refers to six carbon atoms in its hexamethylene monomer). Nylon is one of the few synthetic polymers to contain nitrogen; for this reason nylon polymers are classified as polyamides.

Polyamides (Nylon)

A picture of nylon thread next to the chemical structure of nylon (which is repeating complexity).

Most synthetic polymers are made by using a catalyst, which is a substance that speeds up chemical reactions but is not part of the chemical reactions (it is not used up by the reaction). For example, the catalysis used to polymerize ethylene molecules is called the Ziegler Natta catalyst, while a common catalyst for making synthetic rubber is organic peroxides.

Natural Polymers

There are four main categories of biological polymers that are so important to living things they have been called The Building Block of Life. These polymers are so critical for life on Earth they will be covered in several individual lessons in this course.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 4 types of monomers?

The four monomers that make up biologically important macromolecules are

  • Monosaccharides
    • Make up polysaccharides, or carbohydrates
  • Fatty Acids
    • Make up triglycerides, or lipids
  • Amino Acids
    • Make up polypeptides, or proteins
  • Nucleotides
    • Make up polynucleotides, or nucleic acids

What is a monomer example?

An example of a naturally occurring monomer would be a monosaccharide like glucose. Many glucose monomers can be joined together to create polysaccharide polymers like starch, cellulose, and glycogen.

An example of an artificial, or human-made monomer would be butadiene, which can be used to create the artificial rubber used in car tires.

What are the 4 main polymers?

The four main biologically important polymers are

  • Carbohydrates
  • Lipids
  • Proteins
  • Nucleic Acids

There are several other types of synthetic polymers, including plastics, artificial rubber, and nylon.

What are polymers examples?

Examples of natural polymers include

  • Carbohydrates (Polysaccharides made from Monosaccharides)
  • Proteins (Polypeptides made from amino acids)
  • Lipids (Triglycerides made from fatty acids)
  • Nucleic Acids (Polynucleotides made from nucleotides)

Examples of synthetic polymers include

  • Styrofoam (Polystyrene)
  • Plastic (Polyethylene)
  • Artificial rubber (Polybutadiene)

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