Natural rubber is an elastic hydrocarbon polymer that naturally occurs as a milky colloidal suspension, or latex, in the sap of some plants. It is used extensively in many applications and products. It can also be synthesized. The entropy model of rubber was developed in 1934 by Werner Kuhn. The scientific name for the rubber tree commercially used to obtain natural rubber is Hevea brasiliensis.
Other plants containing latex include figs (Ficus elastica), Castilla (Panama rubber tree), euphorbias, lettuce, the common dandelion, Taraxacum kok-saghyz (Russian dandelion), Scorzonera tau-saghyz, and Guayule. Although these have not been major sources of rubber, Germany attempted to use some of these during World War II when it was cut off from rubber supplies. These attempts were later supplanted by the development of synthetic rubber. To distinguish the tree-obtained version of natural rubber from the synthetic version, the term gum rubber is sometimes used.
The para rubber tree initially grew in South America, and the first European to return to Portugal from Brazil with samples of water-repellent rubberized cloth so shocked people that he was brought to court on the charge of witchcraft. When samples of rubber first arrived in England, it was observed by Joseph Priestley, in 1770, that a piece of the material was extremely good for rubbing out pencil marks on paper, hence the name "rubber".
South America remained the main source of what limited amount of latex rubber was consumed during much of the 19th century. However in 1876, Henry Wickham gathered thousands of seeds from Brazil, and these were germinated in Kew Gardens, UK. The seedlings were then sent to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Indonesia, Singapore and British Malaya. Malaya (now Malaysia) was later to become the biggest producer of rubber. About 100 years ago, the Congo Free State in Africa was also a significant source of natural rubber latex, mostly gathered by forced labor. Liberia and Nigeria also started production of rubber.
In India commercial cultivation of natural rubber was introduced by the British Planters, although the experimental efforts to grow rubber on a commercial scale in India were initiated as early as 1873 at the Botanical Gardens, Kolkata. The first commercial Hevea plantations in India were established at Thattekadu in Kerala in 1902.
Rubber exhibits unique physical and chemical properties. Rubber's stress-strain behavior exhibits the Mullins effect, the Payne effect and is often modeled as hyperelastic. Rubber strain crystallizes.
In its relaxed state rubber consists of long, coiled-up polymer chains that are interlinked at a few points. Between a pair of links each monomer can rotate freely about its neighbour. This gives each section of chain leeway to assume a large number of geometries, like a very loose rope attached to a pair of fixed points. At room temperature rubber stores enough kinetic energy so that each section of chain oscillates chaotically, like the above piece of rope being shaken violently.
When rubber is stretched the "loose pieces of rope" are taut and thus no longer able to oscillate. Their kinetic energy is given off as excess heat. Therefore, the entropy decreases when going from the relaxed to the stretched state, and it increases during relaxation. This change in entropy can also be explained by the fact that a tight section of chain can fold in fewer ways (W) than a loose section of chain, at a given temperature (nb. entropy is defined as S=k*ln(W)). Relaxation of a stretched rubber band is thus driven by an increase in entropy, and the force experienced is not electrostatic, rather it is a result of the thermal energy of the material being converted to kinetic energy. Rubber relaxation is endothermic, and for this reason the force exerted by a stretched piece of rubber increases with temperature (metals, for example, become softer as temperature increases). The material undergoes adiabatic cooling during contraction. This property of rubber can easily be verified by holding a stretched rubber band to your lips and relaxing it.
Stretching of a rubber band is in some ways equivalent to the compression of an ideal gas, and relaxation is equivalent to its expansion. Note that a compressed gas also exhibits "elastic" properties, for instance inside an inflated car tire. The fact that stretching is equivalent to compression may seem somewhat counter-intuitive, but it makes sense if rubber is viewed as a one-dimensional gas. Stretching reduces the "space" available to each section of chain.
Vulcanization of rubber creates more disulfide bonds between chains so it makes each free section of chain shorter. The result is that the chains tighten more quickly for a given length of strain. This increases the elastic force constant and makes rubber harder and less extendable.
When cooled below the glass transition temperature, the quasi-fluid chain segments "freeze" into fixed geometries and the rubber abruptly loses its elastic properties, though the process is reversible. This is a property it shares with most elastomers. At very cold temperatures rubber is actually rather brittle; it will break into shards when struck or stretched. This critical temperature is the reason that winter tires use a softer version of rubber than normal tires. The failing rubber o-ring seals that contributed to the cause of the Challenger disaster were thought to have cooled below their critical temperature. The disaster happened on an unusually cold day.
Rubber latex is extracted from Rubber trees. The economic life period of rubber trees in plantations is around 32 years – 7 years of immature phase and about 25 years of productive phase.
The soil requirement of the plant is generally well-drained weathered soil consisting of laterite, lateritic types, sedimentary types, nonlateritic red or alluvial soils.
The climatic conditions for optimum growth of Rubber tree consist of (a) Rainfall of around 250 cm evenly distributed without any marked dry season and with at least 100 rainy days per annum (b) Temperature range of about 20°C to 34°C with a monthly mean of 25°C to 28°C (c) High atmospheric humidity of around 80% (d) Bright sunshine amounting to about 2000 hours per annum at the rate of 6 hours per day throughout the year and (e) Absence of strong winds.
Many high-yielding clones have been developed for commercial planting. These clones yield more than 1,500 kilograms of dry Rubber per hectare (or, over 4 tons per acre), per annum, when grown under ideal conditions.
In places like Kerala, where coconuts are in abundance, the shell of half a coconut is used as the collection container for the latex. The shells are attached to the tree via a short sharp stick and the latex drips down into it overnight. This usually produces latex up to a level of half to three quarters of the shell.
The latex can be either collected in its liquid state, in which case ammonia solution can be added to the collecting cup prior to tapping in order to prevent natural coagulation, or it can be left in the field to coagulate into a cup lump.
Latex is generally processed into either latex concentrate for manufacture of dipped goods or it can be coagulated under controlled, clean conditions using formic acid. The coagulated latex can then be processed into the higher grade technically specified block rubbers such as TSR3L or TSRCV or used to produce Ribbed Smoke Sheet grades.
Naturally coagulated rubber (cup lump) is used in the manufacture of TSR10 and TSR20 grade rubbers. The processing of the rubber for these grades is basically a size reduction and cleaning process in order to remove contamination and prepare the material for the final stage drying.
The dried material is then baled and palletized for shipment.
The use of rubber is widespread, ranging from household to industrial products, entering the production stream at the intermediate stage or as final products. Tires and tubes are the largest consumers of rubber, accounting for around 56% total consumption in 2005. The remaining 44% are taken up by the general rubber goods (GRG) sector, which includes all products except tires and tubes.
Other significant uses of rubber are door and window profiles, hoses, belts, matting, flooring and dampeners (anti-vibration mounts) for the automotive industry in what is known as the "under the bonnet" products. Gloves (medical, household and industrial) are also large consumers of rubber and toy balloons, although the type of rubber used is that of the concentrated latex. Significant tonnage of rubber is used as adhesives in many manufacturing industries and products, although the two most noticeable are the paper and the carpet industry. Rubber is also commonly used to make rubber bands and pencil erasers.
Additionally, rubber produced as a fiber sometimes called elastic, has significant value for use in the textile industry because of its excellent elongation and recovery properties. For these purposes, manufactured rubber fiber is made as either an extruded round fiber or rectangular fibers that are cut into strips from extruded film. Because of its low dye acceptance, feel and appearance, the rubber fiber is either covered by yarn of another fiber or directly woven with other yarns into the fabric. In the early 1900’s, for example, rubber yarns were used in foundation garments. While rubber is still used in textile manufacturing, its low tenacity limits its use in lightweight garments because latex lacks resistance to oxidizing agents and is damaged by aging, sunlight, oil, and perspiration. Seeking a way to address these shortcomings, the textile industry has turned to Neoprene (polymer form of Chloroprene), a type of synthetic rubber as well as another more commonly used elastomer fiber, spandex (also known as elastane), because of their superiority to rubber in both strength and durability.
Natural rubber is often vulcanized, a process by which the rubber is heated and sulfur, peroxide or bisphenol are added to improve resilience and elasticity, and to prevent it from perishing. Vulcanization greatly improved the durability and utility of rubber from the 1830s on. The successful development of vulcanization is most closely associated with Charles Goodyear. Carbon black is often used as an additive to rubber to improve its strength, especially in vehicle tires.
Some people have a serious latex allergy, and exposure to certain natural rubber latex products such as latex gloves can cause anaphylactic shock. Guayule latex is hypoallergenic and is being researched as a substitute to the allergy-inducing Hevea latexes.
Some allergic reactions are not from the latex but from residues of other ingredients used to process the latex into clothing, gloves, foam, etc. These allergies are usually referred to as multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).