processes, synthetic polymers are made by chemical processes that combine many small units, called monomers, together in chains, branched chains, or more complicated geometries. Starch, cellulose, proteins, and DNA are examples of natural polymers, while nylon, Teflon®, and polyethylene are examples of the synthetic variety. Both classes possess a number of highly useful properties that are as much a consequence of the large size of these molecules as of their chemical composition. Although most synthetic polymers are organic, that is, they contain carbon as an essential element along their chains, other important polymers, such as silicones, are based on noncarbon elements.
The rapid pace of advances in polymers, with only a few decades separating their first commercial development from their present pervasive use, has been remarkable. Synthetic polymers are so well integrated into the fabric of society that we take little notice of our dependence on them. This is truly the polymer age! Society benefits across the board—in health, medicine, clothing, transportation, housing, defense, energy, electronics, employment, and trade. Without a doubt, synthetic polymers have large impacts on our lives.
Although progress to date in polymer science and engineering can be considered revolutionary, opportunities are abundant for creating new polymeric materials and modifying existing polymers for new applications. Scientific understanding is now replacing empiricism, and polymeric materials can be designed on the molecular scale to meet the ever more demanding needs of advanced technology. The possible control of synthetic processes by biological systems is promising as a means of perfecting structures. New catalysts offer the opportunity to make new materials with useful properties, and the design of new specialty polymers with high-value-added applications is an area of rapidly increasing emphasis. Theory, based in part on the availability of high-speed computing, offers new understanding and aids in the development of improved techniques for preparing polymers as well as predicting their properties. Analytical methods, including an array of new microscopic techniques particularly suited to polymers, have been developed recently and promise to work hand-in-hand with theoretical advances to provide a rational approach to developing new polymers and polymer products. The field of polymer science and engineering therefore shows no sign of diminished vigor, assuring new applications in medicine, biotechnology, electronics, and communications that will multiply the investment in research many times over in the next few decades.
Changing world conditions and shifting national priorities have necessitated a reexamination of U.S. research and development activities. What are the potential benefits of polymer science and engineering? What can the United States