Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- This article is about the material rubber, for other uses see Rubber (disambiguation)
Rubber is an elastic hydrocarbon polymer which occurs as a milky emulsion (known as latex) in the sap of a number of plants but can also be produced synthetically. The major commercial source of the latex used to create rubber is the Para rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis (Euphorbiaceae). This is largely because it responds to wounding by producing more latex. Other plants containing latex include figs (Ficus elastica), euphorbias, and the common dandelion. These have not been a major source of rubber, though when Germany was cut off from supplies of rubber during World War II, attempts were made to use such sources, before being supplanted by the development of synthetic rubber.
Aside from a few natural product impurities, natural rubber is essentially a polymer of isoprene units, a hydrocarbon diene monomer. Syntheic rubber can be made as a polymer of isoprene or various other monomers. Rubber is believed to have been named by Joseph Priestley, who discovered in 1770 that dried latex rubbed out pencil marks. The material properties of rubber make it an elastomer.
In its native Central America and South America, rubber has been collected for a long time. The Mesoamerican civilizations used rubber mostly from Castilla elastica . The Ancient Mesoamericans had a ball game using rubber balls (see: Mesoamerican ballgame), and a few Pre-Columbian rubber balls have been found (always in sites that were flooded under fresh water), the earliest dating to about 1600 BC. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the Spanish Conquistadores were so astounded by the vigorous bouncing of the rubber balls of the Aztecs that they wondered if the balls were enchanted by evil spirits. The Maya also made a type of temporary rubber shoe by dipping their feet into a latex mixture. Rubber was used in various other contexts, such as strips to hold stone and metal tools to wooden handles, and padding for the tool handles. While the ancient Mesoamericans did not have vulcanization, they developed organic methods of processing the rubber with similar results, mixing the raw latex with various saps and juices of other vines, particularly Ipomoea alba , a species of Morning glory.
In Brazil the natives understood the use of rubber to make water-resistant cloth. A story says that the first European to return to Portugal from Brazil with samples of such 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 that a piece of the material was extremely good for rubbing out pencil marks on paper. This was the origin of the material's English name of 'rubber'. Blocks of the material are still used for this purpose, and known as 'rubbers' in British English, causing occasional amusement to speakers of American English, to whom a 'rubber' is a condom (usually made from latex). (American English uses 'eraser' to refer to the rubber block.)
The para rubber tree initially grew in South America, where it was the main source of what limited amount of latex rubber was consumed during much of the 19th century. About 100 years ago, the Congo Free State in Africa was a significant source of natural rubber latex, but after repeated efforts (see Henry Wickham) it was successfully cultivated in Southeast Asia, where it is now widely grown.
Current sources of rubber
Today Asia is the main source of natural rubber. Over half of the rubber used today is synthetic, but several million tonnes of natural rubber are still produced annually, and is still essential for some industries, including automotive and military.
Natural rubber is often vulcanized, a process by which the rubber is heated and sulfur is added to improve resilience and elasticity. The process of vulcanization greatly improved the durability and utility of rubber from the 1830s on. The successful development of vulcanisation 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.
Rubber as a clothing material is fetishized by some people, perhaps on the basis that the garment forms a "second skin" that acts as a surrogate for the wearer's own skin. This is known as rubber fetishism.
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