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Any of the polymers of ethylene, the largest class of plastics. Its simple basic structure, of ethylenemonomers, can be linear (high-density and ultrahigh-molecular-weight polyethylene; HDPE and UHMWPE, respectively) or branched to a greater or lesser degree (low-density and linear low-density polyethylene; LDPE and LLDPE, respectively). The branched polyethylenes have similar structural characteristics (e.g., low crystalline content), properties (high flexibility), and uses (packaging film, plastic bags, mulch, insulation, squeeze bottles, toys, and housewares). HDPE has a dense, highly crystalline structure of high strength and moderate stiffness; uses include beverage bottles, liquid detergent jugs, crates, barrels, and luggage. UHMWPE is made with molecular weights 6–12 times that of HDPE; it can be spun and stretched into stiff, highly crystalline fibres with a tensile strength many times that of steel; uses include bulletproof vests.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on polyethylene (PE), visit Britannica.com.
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