Story of natural rubber

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Tree based latex is vulcanized to produce a material that is elastomer and has many usea such as tyres.

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Story of natural rubber

  1. 1. Story of Natural Rubber Natural rubber is a solid product obtained through coagulatingthe latex produced by certain plants, particularly the Brazilian rubber-tree (Hevea Brasiliensis). This raw material is usually tapped from therubber tree, which is native to Amazonia. In 1839, an American namedCharles Goodyear discovered vulcanisation, when he accidentallydropped a mixture of rubber and sulphur into a fire. As he retrieved thematerial, he found that it was no longer sticky and instead of beingbrittle, snapped back to its original shape. Goodyear coined the word"vulcanisation" to describe the process of heating rubber in thepresence of sulphur. The bulk of natural and synthetic rubber isvulcanised with sulphur and is activated by zinc oxide and stearic acidand the process is "accelerated" by the addition of small quantities ofsulphur-based chemicals, which not only speed up the process, butalso influence the properties, especially its resistance to ageing. Although there a large number of species that exude secretionssimilar to latex when the bark is cut, only a few produce sufficientquantities of a quality adequate for exploitation on economic bases. The first patent for a pneumatic tyre was granted in 1882 toJohn Boyd Dunlop. Zinc oxide was mainly used as a reinforcing agentuntil 1912, when it was replaced by carbon black, although zinc oxidecontinued to play a role in optimising the reinforcement process.Growing demand for tyres began to deplete natural rubber suppliesand in response, rubber plantations were cultivated in India andMalaya. 1
  2. 2. For almost fifty years - during the second half of the XIX centurythrough to the second decade of the XX century - natural rubberunderpinned one of the most important development booms in Brazil.That time was when the Industrial Revolution expanded rapidly as theworld lived through a time of prosperity and discoveries in all sectors.Automobiles, trams, telephones, electric light and other innovationschanged the landscapes and customs of towns and cities. Newmarkets opened up. Thanks to its multiple applications, particularly in the expandingautomobile industry, rubber produced from latex tapped from rubber-trees became a product in demand worldwide. And there was no lackof rubber-trees in the Brazilian Amazon. This brought Brazils rubberboom. In Northern Brazil - which at that time was one of the poorestand least-inhabited parts of the country, eager to work the rubber-groves of Amazonia, leading foreign banks and companies set upshop. The capital of Amazonas State became the economic heart ofBrazil. It was equipped with water and electricity supplies, in addition totelephones and large buildings such as the Amazonas Theater, stilltoday a symbol of the wealth brought in by. Thousands of immigrantsflowed in, mainly fleeing the drought that assailed Northeast Brazilduring the 1870s, invading the forest to tap the latex and turn it intorubber. The output of Amazonia reached 42,000 tons a year, with Brazildominating the global natural rubber market. This euphoria lastedthrough to 1910, when the situation began to change: rubber exportsbegan to appear on the market from British Colonies, and Brazil was 2
  3. 3. unable to withstand this fierce competition. In 1876, the British smuggled out rubber-tree seeds fromAmazonia to the Botanical Gardens in London. Through grafting, theydeveloped more resistant varieties that were later sent to the Coloniesin Asia where massive rubber plantations were established, particularlyin Malaysia, Ceylon and Singapore. The difference between latex production techniques in Brazil andAsia was a significant factor in the development of this business, due tothese plantations. While the rubber trees of Asia were set only fourmeters apart, it was sometimes necessary to walk miles between onetree and the next in Amazonia, limiting the amount of latex collectedand increasing its price. Obviously, the well-organized plantations ofthe Far East resulted in a significant increase in productivity, makingthem more competitive.In Brazil, the Government was unwilling to change these methods. Itbelieved that tapping these rubber trees would ensure the presence ofBrazilians in the Amazon region, guaranteeing national sovereigntyover this largely unpopulated area. It opted for geo-politics representedby human settlements instead of geo-economics that could haveproduced higher gains. This relative immobility cost Brazil dear; its exports shrank asthey were unable to withstand the competition of Asian rubber, tappedat far lower prices. Consequently, production began to drop, bringingthe decades of boom to an end for much of Northern Brazil. Thisgolden age of opulence slipped into history. 3
  4. 4. In the late 1920s, Brazil was still attempting to catch up this lostground with the help of an unexpected partner: US industrialist HenryFord, who had developed a new scheme - the production line - thatwas to change the face of industry for ever, and at that time accountedfor 50% of the worlds vehicle output. In order to loosen the grip of theBritish Colonies in Southeast Asia on the rubber market - the preciousraw material for making tires - Ford planted no less than 70 millionrubber tree seedlings in an area covering one million hectares in ParaState.This ambitious project was soon christened Fordlândia by the localresidents. It was designed to produce 300,000 tons of natural rubber ayear, accounting for one half of global consumption. But the FordProject succumbed to the hostile environment of the Amazon rainforestand was abandoned, posting huge losses.Within this context, Asia dominated global supplies of natural rubberwith over 90% of the output. However, significant changes redistributedthe production among the main competitors. Accounting for one-third ofglobal output in 1985, Malaysia fell back due to alterations in itsproduction profile, which began to stress non-agricultural investments.Its position as the worlds largest natural rubber producer went toThailand. Based on advantages in terms of available land and labor,Indonesia has maintained a significant share in global output since the1980s.Other countries have been successfully deploying their low-cost labor-forces and easily-available lands to expand in this sector, particularlyIndia and China. By 2001, natural rubber consumption accounted for 4
  5. 5. some 40% of the total amount of rubber consumed worldwide.Production and consumption of Natural Rubber in India: Synthetic RubberThe importance of the rubber industry ever since it first appeared andthe decisive role that it has played in the development of moderncivilization prompted much interest in discovering its chemicalcomposition in order to synthesize this product. Through theseresearch projects, the tire industry saw the possibility of breaking awayfrom the grip of the worlds natural rubber plantations.The drop in natural rubber production in Brazil coincided with WorldWar I (1914-1918), triggering the need for lower-cost products withsteadier supplies in order to manufacture tires. The pressures imposedby the conquest of the plantations of Asia by the Japanese promptedthe development of a rubber that was able to meet the extraordinarilyhigh demands of the troops at that time, although its structure differedsomewhat from its natural counterpart.This was how GR-S, Buna S, Hycar OS and SBR appeared, which arestyrene and butadiene copolymers. The launch-pad for the massivedevelopment of the synthetic rubber industry, this product could be 5
  6. 6. vulcanized easily, and became the flagship of the world rubberindustry, although its properties did not correspond to all the qualities ofnatural rubber. But its costs and main characteristics made it into anunbeatable competitor. Although synthetic rubber had been knownsince 1875, its production had been expensive and almost negligible.During World War II, a crucial historical episode altered the scenario forthis market. On December 7, 1941, the USA entered the War. Threemonths after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invadedMalaysia and the Dutch East Indies, desperate to take over naturalrubber production from the allies. This gave the Axis control over 95%of world rubber supplies, plunging the USA into a crisis.The use of rubber is widespread, as the characteristics and propertiesof these elastomers make them useful in almost all economic sectors:automobiles, footwear, civil construction, plastics, hospital materialsand others that are of crucial importance in the daily life of society. Asthey are most widely used to produce tires, the SBR and BR varietiesare the most widely consumed type of synthetic rubber. 6

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