We know and love Plexiglas® as one of the hardiest and most transparent synthetic glass alternatives available. But what makes up this miracle material? What are its properties, and what differentiates it from regular synthetics?
In this guide, we’ll cover the manufacturing process for Plexiglas® and what separates it from other synthetic materials on the market. We’ll discuss some of its most common uses and consider why it’s still the preferred alternative to glass and acrylic in many cases.
What is Plexiglass?
When people talk about ‘plexiglass,’ usually they are referring to any composite thermoplastic material that tends to be:
- Resilient to impact damage
- Highly transparent
- Easy to mill and form
- Relatively inexpensive to produce
However, that’s plexiglass. Plexiglas® (with a capital P and one s) is a slightly different concept.
Like Plexiglas®, acrylic glass often goes by plexiglass for marketing purposes, but the truth is that there’s no such thing as plexiglass. It’s similar to how coke isn’t always Coca-Cola. Plexiglas® (methyl methacrylate) is a brand name that describes a particular product.
Beyond the misnomer, there’s far more to this fascinating plastic than commonly known — even for a household name.
Who Invented Plexiglas?
Plexiglas® is a registered trademark of a company called Röhm and Haas, partially named after German inventor Otto Röhm. A product that doesn’t come from this company can’t go by Plexiglas®, but the term ‘plexiglass’ is a convenient way to escape trademark restrictions.
Otto Röhm produced polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) in its current form in 1933. However, the chemical process to create this substance had been around since the late 19th Century, with fellow German Wilhelm Rudolph Fittig being the first to establish the chemical process for creating PMMA.
Röhm successfully created the manufacturing business to produce the compound for commercial purposes. In 1933, he patented Plexiglas® based on this formula and sold methyl methacrylate as an alternative to glass, marketing it as safety glass. It remains in use for this purpose to this day.
Röhm also made significant scientific advancements in other fields as the first scientist who learned to isolate enzymes and illustrate their potential in technical applications. Industries that benefited from this development included the food industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and fields such as laundry detergents.
How Is It Made?
Plexiglas® production uses acrylic acid, which is common to all acrylic glass materials. The compound created for use in Plexiglas® is methyl methacrylate, which manufacturers can create through a series of reactions involving chemical compounds such as sodium cyanide and methyl alcohol. These eventually produce a substance known as a polymer (or plastic in everyday language), which has value for its flexibility, durability, and easy manipulation in terms of color.
All acrylic glass variants go through a similar process. Still, the exact chemical formula used for Plexiglas® is under copyright, meaning that other manufacturers had to find other routes to creating a similar substance.
Plexiglas® is famous to this day for its incredible durability and the high level of transparency it provides — it was even valuable for sensitive equipment such as submarine periscopes during the Second World War.
After the first production of the acrylic sheet formed of methyl methacrylate in 1936, it had many applications in the Second World War — from the submarine periscopes mentioned above to aircraft windscreens and gun turrets.
The incredible durability of methyl methacrylate under pressure made it perfect for high-altitude, high-speed flights, and its transparency was second to none. The type of reinforced glass that makes up part of pilots’ windows today did not exist at the time — and even more significantly, this windshield still involves powerful acrylic!
Plexiglas® made an indelible impact on the world of aviation with its incredible visibility, low production cost, flexible body, and ease with which it could combine with other materials.
Today, Plexiglas®, AKA methyl methacrylate, has a wide variety of applications, including:
- 3D printing such as signs
- As a tasteful barrier for trade shows
- Protecting plants as in a plastic greenhouse or polytunnel
- Transparent pianos
- Transparent furniture and other tasteful home accessories
Below, we’ll cover a few common uses of Plexiglas® and why it’s a good choice for these applications.
A piano is a magnificent instrument whose complex internal workings are mysterious to everyone except professionals and piano tuners. For anyone who doesn’t regularly play the piano, even a view of what lies inside these instruments is a glimpse into a different world.
However, due to the excellent resonance of specially designed Plexiglas® and the stunning look, the Lucid iDyllic transparent piano is an increasingly popular choice. With this, you can see what’s going on inside the acrylic piano as the master pianist performs.
You can see every note play and experience the genius of both composer and performer in a far more intimate way.
Transparent furniture — such as tables and chairs — has boomed in popularity in recent years. Glass tables especially are popular, but there’s the ever-present fear that a guest will put their glass down a little too hard. Besides, the noise can be hard on the ears for some people — enough to outweigh the stunning aesthetics of a glass-top table.
Plexiglas offers an elegant solution to this, with a material that cancels the noise and negates the risk of shatter damage. As it works with glass treatments (just like a pilot’s windshield), you can even keep the glass feel of the table without the risk if you like.
Greenhouses & Polytunnels
Plexiglas® is a popular favorite for greenhouses and polytunnels. This is because it wards off heavy rain but allows the sun’s rays in with minimal reduction while holding heat well. Maintaining a consistent temperature with controlled rainfall is key to many gardeners’ ambitions, especially if you’re planning to grow plants that aren’t native to your climate.
It’s ideal for gardeners everywhere because the heavy substance:
- Won’t blow away due to wind
- Allows your plants adequate sunlight
- Can resist hail and storms
- Won’t damage easily
What Is the Difference Between Acrylic and Plexiglas?
Acrylic glass describes a polymer created using acrylic acid. This process enables it to be translucent, flexible, and strong. However, there’s a big difference between acrylic glass and Plexiglas®.
The exact formula used to create Plexiglas®, AKA methyl methacrylate, is a trademark that other manufacturers cannot replicate. Still, it’s an effective material, and you can understand why the makers wouldn’t want their product devalued by cheap substitutes.
Plexiglas vs. Plexiglass
Remember that distinction we drew between Coca-Cola and coke? This is somewhat similar.
Many polymers formed using acrylic acid exist, and these are acrylic glass. However, methyl methacrylate retains its position at the head of the table for a reason. It’s simply the best material available and has been since its popular inception in 1936.
Sometimes there’s a lot in a name. Plexiglas® is a fascinating material that shows how a seemingly small scientific discovery can lead to a whole world of innovations and technological applications.