Polystyrene (PS) /ˌpɒliˈstaɪriːn/ is a synthetic aromatic hydrocarbon polymer made from the monomer styrene. Polystyrene can be solid or foamed. General-purpose polystyrene is clear, hard, and rather brittle. It is an inexpensive resin per unit weight. It is a rather poor barrier to oxygen and water vapour and has a relatively low melting point. Polystyrene is one of the most widely used plastics, the scale of its production being several million tonnes per year. Polystyrene can be naturally transparent, but can be coloured with colourants. Uses include protective packaging (such as packing peanuts and CD and DVD cases), containers, lids, bottles, trays, tumblers, disposable cutlery and in the making of models.
As a thermoplastic polymer, polystyrene is in a solid (glassy) state at room temperature but flows if heated above about 100 °C, its glass transition temperature. It becomes rigid again when cooled. This temperature behaviour is exploited for extrusion (as in Styrofoam) and also for molding and vacuum forming, since it can be cast into molds with fine detail.
Under ASTM standards, polystyrene is regarded as not biodegradable. It is accumulating as a form of litter in the outside environment, particularly along shores and waterways, especially in its foam form, and in the Pacific Ocean.
In chemical terms, polystyrene is a long chain hydrocarbon wherein alternating carbon centers are attached to phenyl groups (a derivative of benzene). Polystyrene's chemical formula is (C8H8)n; it contains the chemical elements carbon and hydrogen.
The material's properties are determined by short-range van der Waals attractions between polymers chains. Since the molecules consist of thousands of atoms, the cumulative attractive force between the molecules is large. When heated (or deformed at a rapid rate, due to a combination of viscoelastic and thermal insulation properties), the chains are able to take on a higher degree of conformation and slide past each other. This intermolecular weakness (versus the high intramolecular strength due to the hydrocarbon backbone) confers flexibility and elasticity. The ability of the system to be readily deformed above its glass transition temperature allows polystyrene (and thermoplastic polymers in general) to be readily softened and molded upon heating. Extruded polystyrene is about as strong as an unalloyed aluminium but much more flexible and much less dense (1.05 g/cm3 for polystyrene vs. 2.70 g/cm3 for aluminium).