Polycarbonate: Quite the Daredevil

Professor Plastics

Read Bio
Boy with airplane wings

Quick quiz: Is “bullet-proof” glass made with glass or plastics?

The answer: yes.

Typically, it’s made with both. And the type of plastic often used? Tough polycarbonate.

I like to think that the major types of plastics have their own personalities. Polypropylene is sort of a superhero. HDPE is sooooo popular. Silicones are really exciting. And so on… (Yes, yes, my students think it’s weird, too.)

In my mind, polycarbonate is quite the daredevil.

Polycarbonate plastic seems destined for rather epic adventures. Although it was invented/discovered in 1889, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that it was commercialized. And in just a few short years it was tapped by NASA for a truly daring feat: space travel. NASA’s iconic astronaut helmet for the Apollo moon landing in 1969 was made with polycarbonate. That’s when polycarbonate really began to soar. (Get it? Ahem, sorry…)

NASA demonstrated one of polycarbonate’s outstanding characteristics: it’s really, really tough yet see-through. That’s why polycarbonate volunteers for the tough job of helping stop bullets and shrapnel from piercing windows in banks and high security military/law enforcement areas. That’s also why the cockpit canopy of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet is made with polycarbonate. The tough plastic thankfully takes the impact instead of the astronaut, bank teller, soldier, or pilot.

See? Quite the daredevil.

So what makes polycarbonate attempt such feats of derring-do? Well, that’s probably due to its nature.

  • Durable: It helps create products that need a loooooooong life.
  • Shatter-resistant: It can be nearly unbreakable.
  • Transparent: It’s easy to see through and transmits light.
  • Lightweight: It’s lighter than many alternative materials, which can help leave a lighter environmental footprint.
  • Versatile: It’s easily shaped into all sorts of products for all sorts of industries (see below).

Put all that together and you’ve got one tough little daredevil.

To be sure, polycarbonate is not only about walking on the moon and stopping bullets. With the properties listed above, it’s no wonder that we typically use polycarbonate products every day (including some uses that I hope you never experience).

  • In our cars and planes: Due primarily to its low weight and impact resistance, polycarbonate is widely used in the auto and aircraft industries, from headlamps to windows to instrument panels. Lighter weight polycarbonate car windows can help improve fuel efficiency to stretch a gallon of gas.
  • In our homes and buildings: The use of polycarbonate windowpanes in our homes is growing – they’re already used extensively in commercial settings, including heavy-duty skylights.
  • In our great outdoors: Polycarbonate is used in a wide variety of gear for sports (e.g., helmets and visors) and camping (e.g., gear boxes) due in part to its durability.
  • In front of our eyes: Maybe we should stop calling them glasses? Most eyeglass lenses are made with impact resistant polycarbonate, helping protect our eyes from shattered lenses. Bonus: polycarbonate can block nearly all of the sun’s damaging UV rays.
    • In our operating rooms: Polycarbonate is used extensively to make medical devices, including transparent surgical tools such as cannulas, the small tubes used to conduct arthroscopic surgery.
    • In our electronics: CDs and DVDs typically are made with polycarbonate, as are some cell phones, such as the “beautifully, unapologetically plastic” iPhone® 5C. An interesting tidbit: In 2012, Sony® Electronics received an award for developing a plastic made from 99 percent recycled polycarbonate (from CDs, DVDs, containers, and more) to use in some of its cameras.

So polycarbonate helps astronauts… car drivers… law enforcement… campers… medical patients… even our cell phones. Isn’t it nice to know that we have a really tough, protective daredevil looking out for us?