From the beginning, rubber has been a game of high stakes
The ancient Olmec were a pre Mayan civilisation in South America and the first known to use rubber. They boiled the milky fluid collected from native rubber trees to make solid rubber balls used in a game where unfortunate losers were sometimes offered as human sacrifices.
Rubber was later brought to Europe in the 1700’s where they noted the rubber latex fluid when made solid was excellent at rubbing away pencil marks on paper, giving us the term ‘rubber’.
Scientists recognising rubber’s economic potential were fast to commercialise this new material in rubberised boots and fabrics, mostly for waterproofing.
By the early 20th century rubber trees and the production of natural rubber derived from them had spread throughout Southeast Asia.
Rubber use skyrocketed after the discovery that when heated together with sulphur, the resulting material was stronger, resistant to heat and more elastic. This innovation, coined as ‘vulcanisation’, allowed rubber to be used in performance products like tires.
After Japan entered WWII, 97% of the US natural rubber supply was cut off. With the Japanese controlling the Southeast Asian rubber producing countries, the US faced an unforeseen crisis.
Rubber is required for making thousands of products essential for military use, including boots, gas masks, mechanical components and of course, tyres.
Research in producing synthetic rubber from petroleum began in the early 1900′s. Faced with the threat of losing the war for lack of access to natural rubber, the US poured huge resources into developing alternatives to natural rubber, successfully resulting in new processes for making synthetic rubber.
Even after the war, synthetic rubber couldn’t compete with natural rubber which was less expensive and easier to both produce and process.
Demand surged again during the Korean war as did research efforts to produce better synthetic rubber. Since the 1960’s, synthetic rubber production has surpassed natural rubber and today synthetic rubber makes up more than half of all the rubber produced.
Because of crisis, massive resources have been poured into finding alternatives for rubber. Until now, no synthetic source beats natural rubber for products like tires, where most of the world’s rubber is consumed.
A new crisis, our environment
Growth in rubber consumption is tightly coupled to the automotive industry. The more cars produced, the more tires and greater the need to replace them down the road.
Today, the fastest growing region in the automotive industry is Asia. In India for example, 8 out of 10 car buyers are first time car owners. Everyone in India and China wants a car or motorcycle but statistically few of them own one. With incomes and lifestyles rapidly changing in these and other developing countries in Asia, those numbers are about to change.
Such growth in the automotive industry in unprecedented. According to International Rubber Study Group forecasts, by 2020 the rubber industry will face shortages of both natural and synthetic rubber due to growing demand from Asia.
Photo credit: Flickr user ONEMILLION