A polyolefin is a polymer produced from a simple olefin, or alkene as a monomer. For example, polyethylene is the polyolefin produced by polymerizing the olefin ethylene. An equivalent term is polyalkene; this is a more modern term, although polyolefin is still used in the petrochemical industry. Polypropylene is another common polyolefin which is made from propylene.
A more specific type of olefin is a poly-alpha-olefin (or poly-α-olefin, sometimes abbreviated as PAO), a polymer made by polymerizing an alpha-olefin. An alpha-olefin (or α-olefin) is an alkene where the carbon-carbon double bond starts at the α-carbon atom, i.e. the double bond is between the #1 and #2 carbons in the molecule. Common alpha-olefins used as co-monomers to give a polymer alkyl branching groups are similar to 1-hexene or may be longer (see chemical structure below).
1-hexene, an example of an alpha-olefin.
Many poly-alpha-olefins have flexible alkyl branching groups on every other carbon of their polymer backbone chain. These alkyl groups, which can shape themselves in numerous conformations, make it very difficult for the polymer molecules to line themselves up side-by-side in an orderly way. Therefore, many poly-alpha-olefins do not crystallize or solidify easily and are able to remain oily, viscous liquids even at lower temperatures. Low molecular weight poly-alpha-olefins are useful as synthetic lubricants such as synthetic motor oils for vehicles used in a wide temperature range.
Even polyethylenes copolymerized with a small amount of alpha-olefins (such as 1-hexene, 1-octene, or longer) are more flexible than simple straight chain high density polyethylene, which has no branching. The methyl branch groups on a polypropylene polymer are not long enough to make typical commercial polypropylene more flexible than polyethylene.