Forensic Chemistry - Examples


Polymers for example, can be attacked by aggressive chemicals, and if under load, then cracks will grow by the mechanism of stress corrosion cracking. Perhaps the oldest known example is the ozone cracking of rubbers, where traces of ozone in the atmosphere attack double bonds in the chains of the materials. Elastomers with double bonds in their chains include natural rubber, nitrile rubber, and styrene-butadiene rubber. They are all highly susceptible to ozone attack, and can cause problems like car fires (from rubber fuel lines) and tire blow-outs. Nowadays, anti-ozonants are widely added to these polymers, so the incidence of cracking has dropped. However, not all safety-critical rubber products are protected, and, since it only takes a few parts per billion of ozone to start attack, failures are still occurring.

Another highly reactive gas is chlorine, which will attack susceptible polymers such as acetal resin and polybutylene pipework. There have been many examples of such pipes and acetal fittings failing in properties in the USA as a result of chlorine-induced cracking. In essence, the gas attacks sensitive parts of the chain molecules (especially secondary, tertiary or allylic carbon atoms), oxidizing the chains and ultimately causing chain cleavage. The root cause is traces of chlorine in the water supply, added for its anti-bacterial action, attack occurring even at parts per million traces of the dissolved gas.

Most step-growth polymers can suffer hydrolysis in the presence of water, often a reaction catalysed by acid or alkali. Nylon for example, will degrade and crack rapidly if exposed to strong acids, a phenomenon well known to those who accidentally spill acid onto their shirts or tights. Polycarbonate is susceptible to alkali hydrolysis, the reaction simply depolymerising the material. Polyesters are prone to degrade when treated with strong acids, and, in all these cases, care must be taken to dry the raw materials for processing at high temperatures to prevent the problem from occurring.

Many polymers are also attacked by UV radiation at vulnerable points in their chain structures. Thus, polypropylene suffers severe cracking in sunlight unless anti-oxidants are added. The point of attack occurs at the tertiary carbon atom present in every repeat unit, causing oxidation and finally chain breakage.

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