Plexiglass is a versatile material with a wide range of uses, but its name can cause some confusion. Although “plexiglass” contains the word “glass,” it’s not actually glass in the traditional sense. So, in that case, what’s plexiglass made from?
Plexiglass is a solid, transparent plastic made from a synthetic polymer called polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA). Plexiglass is often used as a shatter-resistant, lightweight substitute for glass. Some other common names for plexiglass include Perspex, Acrylite, and Lexan.
Let’s take a closer look at what plexiglass is made out of, where it got its name, the difference between plexiglass and glass, and how to use and cut this amazing material.
What Is Plexiglass Made From?
Although often referred to as glass — due to “glass” being part of its name and the fact that it functions in a very similar way — plexiglass is indeed a type of plastic. It’s made of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), which is, more specifically, a transparent thermoplastic material. PMMA is a polymer that’s made from a combination of methyl methacrylate (MMA) monomer and a catalyst.
The manufacturing process for plexiglass involves polymerization of the MMA monomer. It can then be processed into rods, sheets, and tubes, which are the forms of plexiglass people usually work with for various purposes.
Why Is It Called Plexiglass?
The name “plexiglass” is actually a brand name for a type of acrylic plastic that was developed and first manufactured by the American company Rohm & Haas in 1933. The name is derived from the material’s original name, which was “Plexiglas” (note the capitalization).
Overtime, “plexiglass” has just come to indicate the type of material more generally, rather than the specific brand.
Acrylic Sheet vs. Plexiglass: What’s the Difference?
There are a few differences between acrylic sheet and plexiglass, despite the manufacturing process being very similar. They are as follows:
As discussed, plexiglass is technically a brand name for a specific type of PMMA material. Acrylic sheet, on the other hand, is a more generic term that can refer to any type of PMMA material.
While both acrylic sheet and plexiglass are made from PMMA, the manufacturing process used to produce them can vary. Different manufacturers use different processes or additives, which can affect the properties of the final product.
Plexiglass is known for its optical clarity, which is why it’s often used in applications where high transparency is important, such as in windows and displays (click here for a cleaning guide). Some types of acrylic sheet may not have the same level of clarity as plexiglass, and they therefore may not be the best choice in certain circumstances.
Plexiglass is often more widely available than other types of acrylic sheet, as it’s produced by a large manufacturer and sold under a well-known brand name. Acrylic sheet, on the other hand, may be produced by a variety of manufacturers and sold under different brand names.
The cost of acrylic sheet can vary depending on the manufacturer and the specific properties of the material. In general, however, acrylic sheet is often less expensive than plexiglass.
Technically, the terms acrylic sheet and plexiglass may be referring to exactly the same thing in many conversations, and they’re often interchangeable, but acrylic sheet is a much broader term.
How to Use Plexiglass
There are a variety of ways that plexiglass can be used. Here are some of the most common uses:
Windows and Skylights
Because it’s transparent and shatter-resistant — up to 17 times harder to shatter than real glass — plexiglass is a great choice for windows and skylights. It keeps occupants of a building safe while providing a completely clear and transparent view of the outdoors.
Car manufacturers often use plexiglass for car headlights, as it works well to let the light through and is easy to clean.
Due to its durability and shatter-resistant properties, plexiglass often works great for protective barriers in low-risk settings. This includes hospitals, retail, and restaurants.
However, for more serious circumstances, stronger materials are usually needed since plexiglass can still be broken.
Plexiglass can be used as a glazing material for greenhouses since it allows sunlight to pass through while protecting plants from the elements. Many plants need sunlight to survive, so this can be the perfect choice for those who need their plants to thrive without exposing them to the weather events outside.
Signs and Displays
Plexiglass is commonly used to create signs and displays due to its high transparency and ability to be printed on. This gives artists a lot of creative freedom.
Tanks and Aquariums
Plexiglass is an ideal material for tanks and aquariums, as it provides a great view from both the inside and outside of the tank, allowing owners to keep an eye on their pets while keeping them safe.
There’s a lot of different medical equipment — such as incubators — that benefits from having plexiglass as the primary material due to all of the properties mentioned above.
Can Plexiglass Be Cut?
Yes, plexiglass can be cut using a variety of tools and methods, but it’s critical to use a blade specifically designed for cutting plastics to avoid cracking or melting the material. The easiest way to cut plexiglass is with a handheld rotary tool (on Amazon) or jigsaw equipped with a fine-toothed blade designed for cutting plastics.
Make sure you clamp the plexiglass and use safety gear. You should also cut in a slow and steady motion, taking great care not to rush the process as you could damage the material or, worse, hurt yourself.
All in all, plexiglass is a truly great material. Although the name is somewhat misleading, the fact that it’s made from plastic means it’s much more durable and shatter-resistant than glass, and its transparency also means it’s aesthetically pleasing.