What is Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)?

This lesson is going to define PVC. You'll learn what kind of plastic it is, what it's derived from, how it's made, its structure, as well as its uses in engineering and construction.

A Common Denominator

What could the following have in common?

1. A credit card in your wallet.

2. A pipe in your home.

3. A floor you walk on.

4. A toy a child plays with.

Well, they might all contain or be made entirely of PVC. What is PVC? We're going to find out in this lesson as we also describe its structure and then list many of its uses in construction and engineering.

What is PVC?

PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride, which is a kind of synthetic resin. The phrase synthetic resin is sometimes used to refer to what is commonly called ''plastic''. Specifically, PVC is a kind of thermoplastic resin, which is a type of resin that can be softened by heating. In this case, the term ''plastic'' in thermoplastic doesn't refer to a synthetic resin as before but rather to the fact that one feature of PVC is its plasticity, or malleability, in the face of heat.


To better understand what PVC is in more specific detail as it relates to the structure of PVC, we can actually break down the term itself a bit more:

  • 'Poly-' is a prefix that denotes many.
  • 'Vinyl' refers to a specific kind of chemical group with the formula of -CH=CH2.
  • 'Chloride' references the fact that the structure of PVC contains the element chlorine.

PVC is made from about 57% chlorine (Cl), which is itself derived from NaCl, or salt. The rest of PVC, the hydrocarbon (hydrogen and carbon) aspect, is derived from ethylene obtained from oil or natural gas.

Ethylene and chlorine are combined to produce ethylene dichloride, which is then converted into a vinyl chloride monomer, or the single vinyl chloride unit. When many (poly-) of these single vinyl chloride units (monomers) are combined via a process called polymerization, you get polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.

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