What Is Vinyl? Vinyl Material Properties, Discovery & Applications

Many of you may have come across the terms vinyl siding, vinyl records, vinyl flooring, vinyl gloves etc, but may not know what exactly vinyl is.

Vinyl is not a natural substance but is a synthetic man-made material. It is a type of plastic that is made from ethylene (found in crude oil) and chlorine (found in regular salt). When processed, both the substances are combined to form Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) resin, or as is commonly referred to – Vinyl.

Vinyl was first invented in 1920 by scientists who wanted to develop a material that would help to manufacture everyday products that were easier to make, more durable, and cheaper than what was available. Today, Vinyl has become the second largest manufactured and sold plastic resin in the entire world.

The most common use of vinyl is that in construction, especially as vinyl flooring and vinyl siding. In fact, these uses of vinyl are often thought of as its only uses. In addition to these, vinyl has many other uses because of its ability to combine with various additives and modifiers, thus making vinyl highly suitable to be used in the manufacture of many different products.

Common Properties Of Vinyl

  1. Vinyl is resistant to moisture and humidity.
  2. It is a very strong and durable plastic material.
  3. Vinyl can be manufactured in a variety of colors, both transparent and solid.
  4. Vinyl is a very low-cost material to produce.
  5. Vinyl is a plastic material, which unlike other plastics, can easily be recycled. Because of the durability of vinyl, products made from this material have a long life span. Add to this the fact that the vinyl can then be recycled, which translates into an even longer life of the vinyl plastic resin.
  6. Vinyl is a very environment-friendly material, not only because it can be recycled, but also for many other reasons. Vinyl helps in the preservation of environmental resources as 57% of vinyl is made from common salt, which is a renewable natural substance. Non-replenish able resources such as crude oil only account for 43% of vinyl resin, thus making it nature friendly.
  7. In comparison to various other materials used by the packing industry, vinyl requires lesser amounts of natural resources to make, utilizes much lesser energy for manufacture, and also releases lower emissions into the environment.

Thus vinyl, a synthetic manmade material, has truly revolutionized the entire plastic resin industry.

The Discovery Of Vinyl

Vinyl is a synthetic plastic material that has the most uses compared to any other plastic in the world. But the discovery of this highly versatile substance was not by design, but quite by accident.

In 1926, a man named Waldo Semon was hired by the BF Goodrich Company to develop a kind of substance that would help to bond metal and rubber together. Mr. Waldo Semon, who was an assistant chemistry teacher with the University of Washington, thus started his research to develop a new manmade adhesive that would be cheaper than available alternatives.

In the course of his research and development, Waldo Semon started to run out of bromide, which was essential in the creation of the new adhesive. In order to find a substitute for the bromide, Waldo Semon thought of using chloride in his experiments as chloride was available in plenty.

By using chloride with various other chemicals and adding heat into the equation, Dr. Waldo chanced upon a compound called polyvinyl chloride, which was in a powder form. Further experimentation revealed that when the powder was mixed with hot solvent, it turned into a rubbery gel-like substance on cooling. Thus was created the first-ever Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or Vinyl) material, which came into being during the search for a synthetic adhesive.

Subsequent experiments with the PVC material showed that it had many practical applications and huge potential. Dr. Waldo successfully molded heels of shoes with PVC and also used it to form coatings for various products such as wires, pliers etc. But the one major thing that Dr. Waldo was not successful was to get PVC to bond to metal, which was what he was trying to develop in the first place.

But nevertheless, this accidental discovery of PVC then found many uses and soon products made from Vinyl started entering the market in a big way. The 1930s saw the entry of many vinyl coated umbrellas, raincoats, etc into the markets. After this, vinyl was used in the manufacture of sealants for auto shock absorbers, thus finding usefulness in the auto industry as well.

In the 1940s, the makers of vinyl did their bit to help out in war times. There was an acute scarcity of natural rubber, thus vinyl was used as a coating for wires and proved to be an excellent substance for insulation of wires.

From there on, Vinyl was used by many different industries for many different applications and uses. In today’s times, Vinyl has the distinction of being the most versatile manmade plastic in the entire world, and is the second-largest manufactured and sold plastic resin as well.

Various Applications Of Vinyl

Because of its excellent performance properties, and the fact that it can be as supple or as stiff as required, Vinyl has found applications and uses in many different industries and in the manufacture of hundreds of products. Here is a look at some of the uses of Vinyl.

Medical Uses of Vinyl

Vinyl is such an important material that it is used in the manufacture of many medical products. In an industry where human life is at stake if any inferior substances are used, Vinyl has found many applications because of its non-hazardous properties. Vinyl is commonly used for making the following medical products.

  • Intravenous Fluid Bags and containers
  • Blood bags
  • Catheters
  • Goggles
  • Caps
  • Inhalation Masks
  • Mouthpieces
  • Dialysis Equipment
  • Medical Sealants
  • Ear Protectors
  • Thermal Blankets
  • Gloves
  • Valves

Vinyl in Construction Industry

The leading applications of Vinyl are in the construction and building industry. Almost 60% of all vinyl made in the United States is used in construction and furnishings. Here are some of the applications of vinyl in construction.

  • Siding and window frames
  • Roofing
  • Gutters and down spouts
  • Coverings for walls
  • Coverings for living room, kitchen, and bathroom flooring
  • Piping for water distribution, sewage, and irrigation systems
  • Landfill liners
  • Fencing, railing, and decking
  • Insulation of wiring
  • Electrical conduit
  • Fire sprinkler piping

Vinyl and the Auto Industry

First used as a sealant for shock absorbers, Vinyl has many applications in the auto industry today. These uses include:

  • Interior upholstery in cars
  • Floor mats
  • Constructing dashboards and armrests
  • Car body moldings
  • Anti abrasion coatings
  • Under-hood wiring and cables
  • Windshield wiper systems

Vinyl in Toys

Vinyl is used in the manufacture of many children’s toys. Because it is easy to clean, cost effective, and safe for children, it is used in making many popular toys. Even if vinyl toys are put in the mouth by children, it does not pose any danger to them (attributed to vinyl). Vinyl is a flexible substance and can thus be used for various toys.

In addition to the above, Vinyl is also used in making many electronic products and as a waterproofing agent for many a product.

Other Uses

Although the uses we have mentioned above are among the most important, due to its extreme versatility, vinyl is found in an extremely wide and varied range of other applications.

Among the earliest uses was in vinyl records, which finally won the battle against the phonograph cylinder by around the early 1910s.

Vinyl records continued to be used by DJs, especially those playing dance music, well after CDs become the preferred medium among regular consumers.

Although vinyl records were eventually superseded by digital music even among DJs, the format has enjoyed a renaissance among music enthusiasts in recent years, with a huge increase in production of vinyl records compared with just 10 or 20 years ago.

Vinyl, along with polyurethane, is also commonly used in waterproof protectors, for example in waterproof mattress covers. These are used to cover children’s mattresses and can also be found in hotels. Vinyl is also used in waterproof protectors for walls, for example.

The Manufacturing of Vinyl

Polyvinyl Chloride or Vinyl compound is chiefly made from two basic substances – Salt and Crude Oil. The salt is used to obtain chlorine through a process called electrolytic disassociation of salt. The crude oil, petroleum, or natural gas, is used to obtain Ethylene.

In a process called ‘cracking’, the petroleum is passed through high heat and pressure, as a result of which the petroleum is broken down into ethylene, butadiene, propylene, and other by-products. Through further process, the other by-products are separated and only ethylene remains, which is then used to manufacture Vinyl.

Once the chlorine and ethylene are obtained, the manufacturing procedure of Vinyl is started, which is made up of three main steps.

The Monomer Process

In this step, the ethylene and chlorine are united with each other, using one out of two procedures. Either Direct Chlorination (where pure chlorine and ethylene are used), or Oxychlorination (where ethylene reacts with chlorine in hydrogen chloride) are the two processes used.

This combination of ethylene and chlorine yields a liquid (at room temperature) called Ethylene Dichloride (EDC). The EDC so produced is then put through the cracking process and this results in the formation of Vinyl Chloride Monomer (VCM). VCM is a gas at normal room temperature and is then converted into Vinyl.

The Process of Polymerization

In this step, the VCM is polymerized and converted into Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). Several processes can be used for the polymerization of VCM, such as suspension process, mass process, and the emulsion process.

Either of these processes yields vinyl resin as the final material. The vinyl resin is in the form of a powder. The vinyl resin, by itself, is not useful. Through the final step of vinyl compounding, it is transformed into a substance that has many uses.

Compounding of Vinyl

The vinyl resin has to be compounded before it can be used. The resin is mixed with various additives and modifiers to produce vinyl compound. The additives and modifiers that are used in compounding will depend on what application the vinyl is needed for, and how flexible or rigid the vinyl should be.

Vinyl Health Issues

Despite all the advantages of vinyl, it isn’t without its controversies.

One of the main issues concerns the use of phthalates as a plasticizer in its production, and evidence is now emerging that this group of substances may have implications for human health, although the science is currently inconclusive.

For example, various studies have concluded that the phthalates diisononyl phthalate (DINP) and diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP) have no adverse effect on human health in a range of common uses.

However, some similarities can be seen with what happened with bisphenol A (BPA). This was a substance found in some plastics that was subsequently found to have a deleterious effect on human health.

It was largely replaced by bisphenol S (BPS), but this is now also thought to cause similar problems.

For this reason, many people prefer to be cautious with phthalates because, even if no evidence is currently available definitively proving they are harmful, this doesn’t preclude the possibility that evidence will emerge in the future.

Vinyl Environmental issues

One of the very properties that makes vinyl such as useful material, the fact that it is tough and durable and doesn’t decompose, is also the same property that has led to a global plastic pollution crisis.

When it finds its way into the environment, PVC, along with other similar plastics, take an extremely long time to break down, often several hundred years.

It is estimated that since the 1950s, when plastic production really began to take off, around 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced, of which vinyl makes up a significant proportion.

If plastics are not disposed of properly, they often find their way into waterways and eventually, the sea, and beaches around the world are now polluted with plastic items originating in distant countries.

Furthermore, when plastic enters the sea, it is broken down by wind and sunlight into microplastics, which are then ingested by animals. These can then work their way up the food chain and are eventually ingested by humans too.

The average human now ingests 70,000 pieces of microplastic each year.

This major global crisis is not due to vinyl alone but rather to plastics in general. The main problem comes from single-use plastics that are often only used for a just few minutes before being discarded.

The solution is to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of single-use plastics while at the same time finding the best ways for disposing of plastics like vinyl that are important in applications such as construction.

Vinyl Recycling or disposal

Scrap vinyl can be recycled into a wide variety of useful products, helping to reduce the amount of pollution created by this material.

At the same time, since the manufacture of new PVC requires the use of crude oil, recycling vinyl also helps increase its sustainability.

With modern technology, it has become possible to safely incinerate vinyl (and other plastics), and this is what happens to an increasing proportion of it.

However, huge amounts of vinyl and other plastics are still destined for landfill, a situation that is unsustainable in the long term.

An invaluable material that needs to be used correctly

Vinyl is such an important material in the modern world that it’s hard to imagine living without it. It has so many uses, and it is inexpensive and easy to work with.

The challenge in the coming years will be to work out how we can continue to use vinyl – and other similar plastics – in a safe and ecological way that will reduce the lasting impact it has on the planet.