Molding a thermoplastic


  • Polymers and thermoplastics
  • Crystalline versus amorphous solids
  • Glass transition temperature Tg

Materials (per individual)

  • ~10 g of thermoplastic polymer (Educational Innovations; US$15.95 for 250 g)
  • 3 pellets of a polymer pigment (optional) (Educational Innovations: black, yellow, red or blue: $4.95 for 3 g of pigment; 4 color pack US$15.95)
  • 250-mL glass beaker or other suitable glass container
  • Wooden craft stick or metal spoon
  • Cafeteria tray (optional)
  • 2.5-oz plastic cup and Zip-loc® snack bag (optional)
  • Hot plates or other means of heating water
  • Large beakers (800-mL beakers) for heating water; each individual requires about 200 mL of hot water initially, and more as needed until the desired shape has been obtained.


  • Wear safety glasses/goggles.
  • Thermal burn hazard exists; use heat protective gloves when transferring water to the smaller beakers; warn participants not to touch the beakers of hot water and to carefully blow on the softened thermoplastic and touch it with their finger tip to see if it is cool enough to mold without burning.

Advanced preparation

  • Set up hot water stations. Water should be heated to a temperature of at least 60ºC; we found that a temperature between 80ºC and 85ºC softens the thermoplastic sufficiently and allows extra time for molding before reheating is needed.
  • Place 10-gram samples of thermoplastic in plastic cups.


  • Transfer hot water to a 250-mL glass beaker.
  • Immediately add the thermoplastic polymer beads to the hot water; if using the dye, add three pellets of the dye.
  • Allow time for the thermoplastic to soften and become translucent (about 3 minutes).
  • Using a wooden craft stick or metal spoon, remove the softened material from the hot water; blow on it to cool.
  • When cool enough to touch without burning your fingers, begin to mold the material by first squeezing until the texture of the individual beads is no longer visible.
  • Continue to mold the material into the desired shape. If the material becomes difficult to mold, obtain more hot water, immerse the material in the hot water to soften, and then continue to shape the material as before.
  • Once you have the desired shape, allow the material to completely cool to room temperature. It will become rigid.
  • Place the polymer in a Zip-loc® bag to take with you.


  • The thermoplastic is reusable and the water may be safely disposed of in the drain

Elaine “Lainey” Williams learned the procedure for the thermoplastic shaping activity, tried out various combinations of the dyes, instructed her classmates and shared this activity with 4th to 6th grade girls who recently participated in the FEMMES (Females Engaged in More Math, Engineering, and Science) Capstone event. The following are Lainey’s thoughts about learning the procedure, the underlying chemical concepts and sharing the thermoplastic activity with others.

The first time I poured the thermoplastic beads into the glass beaker of warm water, I watched intently as they slowly clumped together and became transparent. When the opaque white plastic had completely transitioned into its soft, amorphous state, I removed the clump from the beaker and began to use my hands to mold the warm thermoplastic. I could pull and form the polymer into any shape imaginable, and when it cooled and hardened, I could simply reheat and reshape the material. My childlike creativity and imagination came quickly back as soon as I held the heated thermoplastic in my hands.

Opening up an extra layer of creativity and fun, Dr. Lyle provided some brightly shaded polymer pigments to supplement the thermoplastic polymer beads. I added three beads of a blue dye to my plastic; after heating, I could mix and knead the dye and plastic together until the whole plastic became a beautiful, vibrant blue color. I then added two beads of a yellow dye to the now blue plastic, and instead of mixing it in completely, I gently twisted and swirled the yellow dye. The result was a striking marbled effect, with the yellow swirls fading into green before disappearing into the blue plastic. After lots of molding, shaping, and coloring, I was excited to share this particularly creative chemistry activity with not only my classmates, but also any audience I could reach through our chemistry outreach events.

To introduce the “Molding a Thermoplastic” activity at the event, I showed the container of the thermoplastic beads and asked the girls about the color and texture of the materials. They enthusiastically offered their observations — the beads were white and opaque, and they were maintaining their individual shapes, so they were a hard, solid texture. I then explained that at 60ºC, this hard, white plastic undergoes a glass transition, and becomes a soft, moldable material that we could form into all sorts of shapes and designs. When asked if they were ready to shape some thermoplastic beads of their own, they all lit up and exclaimed an eager “yes!” in unison.

My team of chemistry outreach volunteers distributed the beads, dyes and water to the girls, and they quickly got started. I was very impressed with the girls’ interest, curiosity and creativity.
I saw simple round marbles, complex roses, initials of their name, and all sorts of marbled colors. They were smiling and comparing designs, never losing interest as they continued to shape and reshape their thermoplastic polymer.

Volunteering with the chemistry outreach program has been a gratifying experience. I have watched kids light up when participating. Students follow up with inquisitive, thoughtful questions about the process, showing their level of comprehension and engagement. Several kids express their enthusiasm for science and science as a career. One cheerfully declared that science activities like these are her reasons for wanting to be a chemist someday. For a young scientist like me, leaving such a positive impact has been rewarding.

Editor’s note:  Educational Innovations has a nice little 2-minute demonstration video of their thermoplastic polymer on YouTube. The product is polycaprolactone, a biodegradable polyester polymer. A bottle of Educational Innovation’s thermoplastic polymer is this month’s contest prize — see page 8.

*Elaine Williams is a senior at Duke University majoring in Global Health. Upon graduation she will continue her studies in Global Health at Georgetown University.
**Dr. Kenneth Lyle is a lecturing fellow in the Department of Chemistry at Duke University.

The Powell Family Trust, the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, and Biogen Idec – Research Triangle Park, fund the Duke Chemistry Outreach Program.