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Acrylic plastic refers to a family of synthetic, or man-made, plastic materials containing one or more derivatives of acrylic products acid. The most common acrylic plastic is polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), which is sold under the brand names of Plexiglas, Lucite, Perspex, and Crystallite. PMMA is a tough, highly transparent material with excellent resistance to ultraviolet radiation and weathering. It can be colored, molded, cut, drilled, and formed. These properties make it ideal for many applications including airplane windshields, skylights, automobile taillights, and outdoor signs. One notable application is the ceiling of the Houston Astrodome which is composed of hundreds of double-insulating panels of PMMA acrylic plastic.

Like all plastics, acrylic plastics are polymers. The word polymer comes from the Greek words poly, meaning many, and meros, meaning a part. A polymer, therefore, is a material made up of many molecules, or parts, linked together like a chain. Polymers may have hundreds, or even thousands, of molecules linked together. More importantly, a polymer is a material that has properties entirely different than its component parts. The process of making a polymer, known as polymerization, has been likened to shoveling scrap glass, copper, and other materials into a box, shaking the box, and coming back in an hour to find a working color television set. The glass, copper, and other component parts are still there, but they have been reassembled into something that looks and functions entirely differently.

The first plastic polymer, celluloid, a combination of cellulose nitrate and camphor, was developed in 1869. It was based on the natural polymer cellulose, which is present in plants. Celluloid was used to make many items including photographic film, combs, and men's shirt collars.

In 1909, Leo Baekeland developed the first commercially successful synthetic plastic polymer when he patented phenol formalde-hyde resin, which he named Bakelite. Bakelite was an immediate success. It could be machined and molded. It was an excellent electrical insulator and was resistant to heat, acids, and weather. It could also be colored and dyed for use in decorative objects. Bakelite plastic was used in radio, telephone, and electrical equipment, as well as counter tops, buttons, and knife handles.

Acrylic acid was first prepared in 1843. Methacrylic acid, which is a derivative of acrylic acid, was formulated in 1865. When methacrylic acid is reacted with methyl alcohol, it results in an ester known as methyl methacrylate. The polymerization process to turn methyl methacrylate into polymethyl methacrylate was discovered by the German chemists Fittig and Paul in 1877, but it wasn't until 1936 that the process was used to produce sheets of acrylic safety glass commercially. During World War II, acrylic glass was used for periscope ports on submarines and for windshields, canopies, and gun turrets on airplanes.

Acrylic plastic polymers are formed by reacting a monomer, such as methyl methacrylate, with a catalyst. A typical catalyst would be an organic peroxide. The catalyst starts the reaction and enters into it to keep it going, but does not become part of the resulting polymer.

Acrylic plastics are available in three forms: flat sheets, elongated shapes (rods and tubes), and molding powder. Molding powders are sometimes made by a process known as suspension polymerization in which the reaction takes place between tiny droplets of the monomer suspended in a solution of water and catalyst. This results in grains of polymer with tightly controlled molecular weight suitable for molding or extrusion.

Acrylic plastic sheets are formed by a process known as bulk polymerization. In this process, the monomer and catalyst are poured into a mold where the reaction takes place. Two methods of bulk polymerization may be used: batch cell or continuous. Batch cell is the most common because it is simple and is easily adapted for making diy acrylic key chain sheets in thicknesses from 0.06 to 6.0 inches (0.16-15 cm) and widths from 3 feet (0.9 m) up to several hundred feet. The batch cell method may also be used to form rods and tubes. The continuous method is quicker and involves less labor. It is used to make sheets of thinner thicknesses and smaller widths than those produced by the batch cell method.

We will describe both the batch cell and continuous bulk polymerization processes typically used to produce transparent polymethyl methacrylic (PMMA) sheets.

The mold for producing sheets is assembled from two plates of polished glass separated by a flexible "window-frame" spacer. The spacer sits along the outer perimeter of the surface of the glass plates and forms a sealed cavity between the plates. The fact that the spacer is flexible allows the mold cavity to shrink during the polymerization process to compensate for the volume contraction of the material as the reaction goes from individual molecules to linked polymers. In some production applications, polished metal plates are used instead of glass. Several plates may be stacked on top of each other with the upper surface of one plate becoming the bottom surface of the next higher mold cavity. The plates and spacers are clamped together with spring clamps.

An open comer of each mold cavity is filled with a pre-measured liquid syrup of methyl methacrylate monomer and catalyst. In some cases, a methyl methacrylate prepolymer is also added. A prepolymer is a material with partially formed polymer chains used to further help the polymerization process. The liquid syrup flows throughout the mold cavity to fill it.

The mold is then sealed and heat may be applied to help the catalyst start the reaction.

As the reaction proceeds, it may generate significant heat by itself. This heat is fanned off in air ovens or by placing the molds in a water bath. A programmed temperature cycle is followed to ensure proper cure time without additional vaporization of the monomer solution. This also prevents bubbles from forming. Thinner sheets may cure in 10 to 12 hours, but thicker sheets may require several days.