I have read some industry discussion groups lately and have noticed some confusion on the difference between Thermosets and Thermoplastics, so I will use this post to help clarify these points…
Thermosets are polymerized during processing while thermoplastics are polymerized before being processed. During processing, the polymer chains in thermosets fuse together, or cross-link. Once these polymers cross-link, they undergo a chemical change which prevents them from being melted and reprocessed. An egg is an example of a natural polymer which thermosets. Once the egg is heated, it solidifies and cannot be melted again.
Thermoplastics are long polymer chains that are fully polymerized when shipped by the resin manufacturer. Thermoplastics can be re-ground, melted and re-processed while retaining most of their original properties. An example of a natural thermoplastic material is wax. It can be melted and formed. Once cooled, the hardened wax can be melted and formed again. Unlike thermosets, most plastics companies prefer thermoplastic materials because they can be reprocessed and recycled.