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2 Types of Vinyl plus how it’s made and how it’s used

While you may be wondering about the types of vinyl, you also be wondering what it actually is, and how it was invented. In this article, we’ll walk you through the history of Vinyl, what the darn thing actually is, and how it can be used. 

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 itself is a shorthand for Polyvinyl chloride: the world’s third-most widely produced synthetic polymer of plastic. About 40 million tons of PVC are produced each year. 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. PVC comes in two basic forms: rigid and flexible. The rigid form of PVC is used in construction for pipe and in profile applications such as doors and windows.

The History of 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. Polyvinyl chloride or PVC was never patented until 1913 when German, Friedrich Klatte invented a new method of the polymerization of vinyl chloride using sunlight. Friedrich Klatte became the first inventor to receive a patent for PVC. However, no really useful purpose for PVC was found until Waldo Semon came along and made PVC a better product. Semon had been quoted as saying, “People thought of PVC as worthless back then [circa 1926]. They’d throw it in the trash.”

The world’s most versatile plastic had a rather humble beginning: A rubber scientist during the early 1920s stumbled onto a new material with fantastic properties during his search for a synthetic adhesive. In 1926, Waldo Lonsbury Semon was working for the B.F. Goodrich Company in the United States as a researcher, when he invented plasticized polyvinyl chloride. Waldo Semon had been trying to dehydrohalogenate polyvinyl chloride in a high boiling solvent in order to obtain an unsaturated polymer that could bond rubber to metal. For his invention, Waldo Semon received United States patents #1,929,453 and #2,188,396 for the “Synthetic Rubber-like Composition and Method of Making Same; Method of Preparing Polyvinyl Halide Products.” He experimented by making golf balls and shoe heels, then shortly after PVC-based products such as insulated wire, raincoats and shower curtains hit the market. As more uses for vinyl were discovered, industry developed more ways to produce and process the new plastic.

Joining industries across the nation during the ’40s, PVC/vinyl manufacturers turned their attention to assisting the war effort. Vinyl-coated wire was widely used aboard U.S. military ships, replacing wire insulated with rubber. Vinyl manufacturers were working in high gear as World War II wound down, and they quickly found new markets for the durable plastic. Following the war, news of vinyl’s versatility and flame-resistant properties spread, leading to dozens of commercial uses. Five companies were making PVC at the century’s midpoint, and innovative uses for vinyl continued to be found during the ’50s and ’60s. A vinyl-based latex was used on boots, fabric coatings and inflatable structures, and methods for enhancing vinyl’s durability were refined, opening the door to applications in the building trades. Vinyl products quickly became a staple of the construction industry; the plastic’s resistance to corrosion, light and chemicals made it ideal for building applications. PVC piping was soon transporting water to thousands of homes and industries, aided by improvements in the material’s resistance to extreme temperatures. Twenty companies were producing vinyl by 1980. In 1931, RCA Victor launched the first commercially available vinyl long-playing record, marketed as program-transcription discs. These revolutionary discs were designed for playback at 331⁄3 rpm and pressed on a 30 cm diameter flexible plastic disc, with a duration of about ten minutes playing time per side. Then, in  1947 there was a major breakthrough that expanded the field of Vinyl records. World War II ended just two years pervious, and people were still enjoying their music at home one 5-minute song at a time on their 78 rpm shellac records. To go from a record holding two songs, one on each side, to holding a full-length album? That’s why vinyl records hold such prominence in the music industry. They changed the way music lovers would enjoy listening to their music forever.

Types of Vinyl

There are two main types of Vinyl, which result in very different applications for its use. The rigid form of PVC is used in construction for pipe and in profile applications such as doors and windows. It is also used in making plastic bottles, non-food packaging, food-covering sheets and plastic cards (such as bank or membership cards). It can be made softer and more flexible by the addition of plasticizers, the most widely used being phthalates. In this form, it is also used in plumbing, electrical cable insulation, imitation leather, flooring, signage, phonograph records, inflatable products, and many applications where it replaces rubber. With cotton or linen, it is used in the production of canvas. There are some main differentiations between the rigid and flexible forms of PVC. The most notable difference is this: flexible PVC compounds have plasticiser added to them, while rigid ones have little to none. This plasticizer makes the PVC resin more flexible, which means it’s soft and supple in comparison. You’ll see these “rubbery” characteristics in the likes of garden hosepipes. Rigid PVC compounds retain their hardness because they include minimal amounts of plasticizer. Depending on how much plasticizer is added to a PVC compound, its physical qualities will vary. Generally speaking, rigid PVC compounds are usually denser and harder, which makes them strong and durable. Flexible ones, on the other hand, are more diverse in their uses. Each type comes with its own pros and cons. Rigid PVC could be stronger and more durable, while flexible PVC can be made to be resistant to chemical and liquid damage. The application of the PVC compound will suggest the specific qualities and benefits that it is required to have. This can be tailored and adhered to during the manufacturing process of the PVC compounds. 

How is Vinyl Made?

About 80% of production involves suspension polymerization. Emulsion polymerization accounts for about 12%, and bulk polymerization accounts for 8%. Suspension polymerization affords larger particles, whereas emulsion polymerization gives much smaller particles. VCM and water are introduced into the reactor along with a polymerization initiator and other additives. The contents of the reaction vessel are pressurized and continually mixed to maintain the suspension and ensure a uniform particle size of the PVC resin. The reaction is exothermic and thus requires cooling. As the volume is reduced during the reaction, and  water is continually added to the mixture to maintain the suspension. The polymerization of VCM is started by compounds called initiators that are mixed into the droplets. These compounds break down to start the radical chain reaction. Typical initiators include dioctanoyl peroxide and dicetyl peroxydicarbonate, both of which have fragile oxygen-oxygen bonds. Some initiators start the reaction rapidly but decay quickly, and other initiators have the opposite effect. A combination of two different initiators is often used to give a uniform rate of polymerization.  The average molecular weights of commercial polymers range from 100,000 to 200,000, and the number average molecular weights range from 45,000 to 64,000. Now, what exactly is polymerization you may ask? In polymer chemistry, polymerization, or polymerisation, is a process of reacting monomer molecules together in a chemical reaction to form polymer chains or three-dimensional networks.Polymerization is important because it is the process by which plastics are made. It affects numerous aspects of everyday life, as anything to do with plastic, fabrics or elastomers involves polymerization.

Once the reaction has run its course, the resulting PVC slurry is degassed and stripped to remove excess VCM, which is recycled. The polymer is then passed through a centrifuge to remove water. The slurry is further dried in a hot air bed, and the resulting powder is sieved before storage or pelletization. Normally, the resulting PVC has a VCM content of less than 1 part per million. Other production processes, such as micro-suspension polymerization and emulsion polymerization, produce PVC with smaller particle sizes with slightly different properties and with somewhat different sets of applications. PVC may be manufactured from either naphtha or ethylene feedstock. However, in China, where there are substantial stocks, coal is the main starting material for the calcium carbide process. The acetylene generated is then converted to VCM which usually involves the use of a mercury-based catalyst. The process is also very energy intensive, and generates considerable waste. While Vinyl as a material has advanced society in so many ways, from construction to art appreciation, it is also certainly not very sustainable. 

How Vinyl is used

1. Flooring 

Vinyl flooring is a type of resilient flooring product made primarily from polyvinyl chloride. Other materials such as fiberglass, resin, plasticizer, wood flour, and stone composite are mixed in varying quantities. There are different types of vinyl flooring, and we will look at that in a bit. All vinyl flooring products are made of several layers, resulting in a durable, hardwearing, and low-maintenance flooring material. The foundational layer is a polyvinyl core at the bottom, followed by a printed design layer and a top transparent wear layer that offers protection against moisture, scratches, and stains. The number of layers can increase when more material is added to give the flooring product a more rigid core. The additional layers also differentiate the various types of vinyl flooring. PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride. So, PVC is flooring made from polyvinyl chloride. If you are thinking: Is polyvinyl chloride the same as vinyl flooring? The answer is: yes! PVC and vinyl flooring is one and the same thing Polyvinyl chloride is the official name of the flooring product, while vinyl flooring is a short form or alternative name. Let’s admit it: it is easier to say vinyl flooring than polyvinyl chloride flooring. PVC and vinyl flooring are appropriate alternatives to polyvinyl chloride flooring, thus popular in everyday conversation. This option is a super popular alternative to wood flooring, and often achieves a very similar look. Undoubtedly, vinyl flooring is all the rage. Everyone from flooring manufacturers to floor installation experts and homeowners is raving about vinyl. But, vinyl flooring has been around for decades.

2. Pipes

The unsung heroes of water transportation, PVC pipes are used anywhere from sewage systems to agricultural irrigation. They are one of the most versatile types of plastic pipes, and have a wide range of benefits; they are lightweight yet durable, cost-effective, and recyclable. To help you choose new pipes for your home, we have compiled a list of various types of PVC pipes and their applications.There are two main types of PVC pipe, schedule 40 and schedule 80. What makes them different is the thickness of the pipe walls. A rule of thumb when it comes to PVC pipes is that the higher the number, the thicker it is. For instance, of the two, schedule 80 has thicker walls when compared to schedule 40. PVC pipes are one of the safest pipes to use in the transport of drinking water. Because PVC has a high resistance to corrosion, it is harder for bacteria to breed on it, making it a valuable asset to public health. Additionally, the makeup of PVC turns it into a sort of barrier from contaminants to make their way into the drinking water.Many factors go into the environmentally friendly factor of PVC pipes. PVC is a low carbon plastic, meaning it requires less energy and fewer resources to manufacture. Because they are so light, less energy is used in their transport. PVC pipes’ smooth surface reduces pumping costs and energy use as well. And of course, PVC pipes are usually 100% recyclable, making them the most sustainable pipe out there. At the same time, the plastic itself isn’t so friendly to the environment, or to living things. At this moment, however, we don’t have an equally light and functional alternative. 

3. Clothing

PVC vinyl fabrics are synthetic technical fabrics engineered for use across a broad variety of applications including sports clothing and equipment, awnings, space vehicles, fire protective clothing, automotive components, and military and commercial tents. Polyvinyl chloride, a.k.a. PVC, a.k.a. vinyl, is a very harmful chemical in many other regards, often referred to as  poison plastic as it contains several seriously harmful toxic chemicals including dioxins, phthalates, vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride, lead, cadmium, and organotins. This lethal combination gives the stuff an appealing, shiny and sometimes patent-leather-like surface, so some designers use it as ‘vegan leather’. The main reason PVC vinyl fabrics can be applied to so many different usages is because of their many physical qualities. The aforementioned chemical stability of the key compounds found in PVC make this type of fabric hard to compete with in terms of qualities that make it suitable for industrial use. It is used to create the shiny effect on many raincoats and boots, and it is water resistant. 

4. Plastic Bags

Vinyl can also be used to create a very thick kind of plastic bag, which can be sold for high prices by luxury designer brands, or used for blood bags in a hospital. You’ve probably had a toiletry bag that was made out of PVC at some point: transparent so as to allow you to see the contents, but also sturdy. Blood containers, popularly known as blood bags, are one of the key application areas for PVC. In fact, blood transfusion services all around the world depend on the qualities of PVC bags. Click on the infographic to learn more about PVC blood bags. PVC is unbreakable. This property makes it possible for drones to deliver and drop blood bags in remote areas where blood is urgently needed. Before 1950, fragile blood containers made of glass resulted in the deaths of countless civilians. Robust PVC blood bags revolutionised blood storage and transport, saving the lives of millions. PVC also ensures the much-needed 49 days of shelf life of the blood. Blood banks depend on the longevity of these bags, especially for patients with rare blood types or during emergencies such as natural disasters. They are also relatively cheap and easy to sterilize, great for use in hospitals where they need to have many on hand. 

5. Wiring 

Vinyl is able to withstand tough conditions behind building walls – such as exposure to changing temperatures and dampness – for the life of the building. As a result, it is one of the most prevalent and trusted materials used in electrical wiring and cables. PVC is widely used in electrical cable construction for insulation, bedding and sheathing. It was the 1950s when PVC started to replace rubber insulated and sheathed cables in general household wiring due to its ease of processing. PVC is cost-effective and also has excellent ageing properties and typically exceeds a 25 to 30 year service life. It’s considered to be one of the most versatile of the common thermoplastics due to the fact that its properties can be easily modified – although PVC is inherently hard and rigid it is easily modified with plasticizers, stabilizers, lubricants and various other ingredients and fillers that aid processing and enhance various properties. It is also easy to process and recycle when used as a thermoplastic type. The do-it-all material can be made resistant to a wide range of chemicals including oils, acids and alkalis, and is tough, durable and resistant to abrasion. The addition of various additives can improve its temperature range, typically from -40 to 105°C, as well as the resistance to sunlight, reduced smoke emission and improved water resistance.

6. Car Interiors 

Polyvinyl Chloride, more commonly known as PVC, is a flame retardant plastic that can be formed into either flexible or rigid components. PVC is another common plastic used in cars thanks to its formability and sleek finish: you’ll often see PVC used for dashboards and automotive body parts. The average service life of a modern road vehicle is now 17 years in contrast to 11 ½ years in the 1970s. PVC has made a special contribution to this as the principal protector of the underbody (in the form of a wear-resistant coating), as sealants against humidity and in other protective profiles. The durability of PVC has also made it a first choice for the cladding of interior parts such as dashboards and door panels. Longer lasting cars also mean a saving of natural resources. PVC itself is a material with a comparatively low energy consumption thereby cutting down the depletion of natural resources. In vehicles, this is enhanced further by the lightness of PVC components in comparison to traditional materials, therefore reducing weight and thus fuel consumption.

It seems that PVC has so many benefits, that include its durability and lightness, that can have some positive environmental effects. It is also such a versatile material that it can be used in so many different applications, from clothing to wiring. That being said, there is also massive proof that it is harmful in many ways to the planet, and living beings. Some say it is the most environmentally devastating plastic: The PVC lifecycle — its production, use, and disposal — results in the release of toxic, chlorine-based chemicals. These toxins are building up in the water, air and food chain.The reasons why PVC is so harmful can be summed up by two words: chlorine and dioxin. Greenpeace states, “PVC production is the largest and fastest growing use of chlorine — accounting for nearly 40 percent of all chlorine used in the United States. Chlorine is the basic building block of our most infamous toxic problems: CFCs, which destroyed the ozone layer, the dioxin contamination at Love Canal and Times Beach, Agent Orange, PCBs and DDT pesticides.” However, as I said before, there aren’t easily reproducible alternatives on the market at the moment, so PVC remains dominant. With new research into biomaterials, there is hope for changes in the future!