Petroleum in Real Life: Plexiglass

This vital petroleum-based product is having a moment – worldwide.

You’ve looked through it, you’ve touched it, and you’ve likely purchased it, but you’ve probably never thought much about it until recently. With plexiglass becoming more and more prevalent in stores and worksites as a way to protect against the spread of COVID-19, this is a good time to highlight this versatile product, which comes with a bit of red herring for a name.

Let’s start with that important point – there is no glass in plexiglass. In fact, that’s kind of the point of the product.

How it’s made

No matter what you call it, plexiglass is a transparent, petroleum-based thermoplastic product – an acrylic. Manufacture starts with the distillation of hydrocarbon fuels into lighter ‘fractions’ that are combined with other catalysts to produce plastics (typically via polymerization). Petrochemical feedstock from crude oil and natural gas are used in the crackers that produce the basic building blocks for making these plastics. Generally speaking, producing one kilogram of PMMA requires about two kilograms of petroleum feedstock.

When the acrylic is heated to 100 degrees Celsius, it can be easily molded into a variety of shapes that hold their form as they cool. Plexiglass is often manufactured in sheets for use as a lightweight, shatter-resistant alternative to glass. While it’s most commonly used in sheet form, it can be easily formed into a variety of shapes such as tubes and rods.

How it’s used

Plexiglass was first produced in 1928 and brought to market five years later by Rohm and Haas Company, which trademarked the well-known ‘Plexiglas’ name. Among the earliest applications occurred during World War II, when it was used for submarine periscopes, and airplane windows, turrets and canopies. Medical workers quickly discovered that war veterans whose eyes were injured due to shards of broken acrylic fared much better than those affected by shards of shattered glass.

Already widely used, plexiglass is finding its way into even more parts of our lives.

Today, the ubiquity of plexiglass means we don’t even think about it – but it certainly plays a big role in modern life, in applications that take advantage of its primary characteristics: shatter-resistant, transparent, flexible and strong. Think windows, signage, display cases, aquariums, bus shelters, hockey rinks, windshields, LCD screens, vehicle lights, household goods and more – and of course the current all-important sneeze guards and face shields that protect against COVID-19.

Plexiglass Fast Facts