For years, man has been attempting to recreate that which nature already produces; there have been many notable failures and successes. One such success was the creation of artificial elastomers, especially during the first half of the twentieth century. The inherent properties of rubber, such as its flexibility, resistance to water, and shock absorbency, made the prospect of a mass-produced synthetic version of it incredibly enticing. There are currently many types of artificial elastomers available, but one which was created by American chemists was neoprene rubber, also known as CR rubber, a synthetic material fashioned to mimic the properties of one of nature’s natural products. The product was designed to imitate the qualities of the latex material which is harvested from the “Para rubber tree,” which was being imported at the time from Southeast Asia and South America. Because of the success that was achieved, neoprene supply was used to help the war efforts during the Second World War. This was largely due to the incredible demand for tires and other military neoprene supply.
World War II: The Demand for Rubber Explodes
The onset of World War II geared many industries to devote their time, efforts and resources towards the war. More than anything, the United States military was focused on producing unmatched amounts of military vehicles, all of which would need tires and numerous other parts which were made from rubber. Up until that point, Natural rubber (NR) was available as a resource and was utilized in the production of goods like gaskets and mechanical belt, among other things, but it would soon become unavailable.
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Neoprene Rubber: Made By Natural Inspiration and American Innovation
Demand of Natural Rubber Surpasses Supply
The majority of natural rubber was obtained from Southeast Asia, and because Japan was effectively creating an embargo of NR through their occupation of this region, the resource was unavailable to the Allied forces. Furthermore, because the supply of NR was severely reduced, prices for it skyrocketed as demands could hardly be met. American and European firms had no option but to begin researching and conducting experiments to make a synthetic rubber replacement, yet many failed—with the exception of Germany, who successfully produced styrene butadiene rubber (SBR), one of the first functional synthetic rubbers.
Assembling a New Research Team
In 1925, Du Pont, an American company that originally produced explosives, started a research program led by research manager Elmer Bolton to create an artificial elastomer. Many of the early experiments were unsuccessful and Du Pont put the synthetic rubber program on the backburner. Three years later, a new research team was assembled, which included first-rate chemists Arnold Collins and Wallace Carothers.
Success: Neoprene Rubber is Discovered by American Chemists
Bolton suggested that Carothers begin studying a compound called divinylacetylene, or DVA. This rubber-like compound was discovered by organic chemist Julius Nieuwland but not utilized because it was too soft. As per Carothers’s instruction, Collins conducted experiments with DVA. In one experiment, Carothers and Collins recovered a white, foreign liquid that solidified into a substance that looked like rubber. The substance was pliable like rubber and even bounced. In 1930, Carothers and Collins finally produced a useable synthetic rubber compound, CR rubber. Henceforth, American industry would be able to produce neoprene supply for all of its military necessities. A string of other neoprene applications would soon follow, but for the time being, all efforts and innovations were directed to the war effort.
Upon refining the chemistry and production of neoprene rubber, Du Pont management pondered potential neoprene applications. The synthetic substance was more weatherproof than other rubbers and possessed moderate resistance to oils and gasoline. The ensuing Neoprene supply produced were clearly preferred for most use. Telephone-wire insulation and automotive parts like gaskets and belts were among the first significant uses of the new substance. Du Pont was the primary neoprene producer, manufacturing neoprene in three of their laboratories. It was widely utilized in America’s war effort in lieu of rubber for military automotive applications. Since it had its own strengths and weaknesses, CR rubber did not compete with natural rubber, but rather stood alongside it as a viable alternative to nature’s splendid substance.