When rubber was first discovered thousands of years ago, it was noted for its unique qualities. Elasticity, resilience, and ability to resist impact were just some of many characteristics that were valued. It quickly gained popularity as a promising industrial product; however, as is the case with many natural products, it was soon overtaken by the rise of synthetic alternatives. Two World wars and a burgeoning automotive industry led to a tremendous demand for rubber. Therefore, synthetic rubber products were developed to compete with that of more traditional tree derived ones. You may be wondering, well, what’s the real difference between natural rubber and synthetic rubber?
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Natural rubber comes from trees! The Para Rubber tree, Hevea Brasiliensis, is part of a group of plants that releases a sticky substance when the tree is injured. When this sap dries, it does not harden entirely. Instead, it becomes a soft and pliable material that we know as latex. This by-product is then used in a variety of industries, especially rubber tires and rubber flooring. Have you ever seen a high quality natural roll of rubber matting in an airport? Odds are that is made from tree derived rubber sap.
Natural rubber is eco-friendly! Natural rubber has been around for decades. The first recorded observation of natural rubber dates back to Meso-American times, back in the days of Christopher Columbus and other Spanish explorers!
Natural rubber is biodegradable: Natural rubber is collected from rubber trees using a process called ‘cutting’. Incisions are made in the trunk of the tree and the sap is drained out. After a period of time, the cuts are covered up, allowing the tree to heal. This process, when done on thousands of trees on a rubber plantation, can yield a LOT of rubber! Ever seen 4x8 rubber mats in a commercial kitchen? If it is a natural rubber product you can bury I in dirt and after a few years it will disintegrate.
Natural rubber is affordable: This type of rubber is very elastic, and after it is collected, it is stretched out into rolls called sheet rubber. This roll is then bundled up as raw rubber and shipped to manufacturers. A manufacturer of a roll of rubber matting would use this to produce a rubber floor mat. The ease and low-tech nature of producing rubber sheet makes the end product less pricey than synthetic alternatives.
Entirely man made:As an artificial elastomer it has all the qualities of natural rubber but is industrially produced using chemicals.
Lots of Variations:Synthetic rubber has many different variations, like EPDM, Nitrile, Neoprene, or Viton. Synthetic rubber covers a wide range of compounds, many of which you may have heard of: neoprene and silicone are two that are probably more familiar.
Petroleum By-Product:Synthetic rubber is a more recent discovery, with early dates in 1879 and then subsequently refined in the early 1900’s. It only became widely used after World War II when the German rubber supply was cut-off by the allies.
Very Durable: Synthetic rubber is generally more durable than natural rubber because it has been developed to withstand the elements. It is often used in abrasive, wear-heavy applications. Therefore synthetic rubberized mats tend to be more durable!
More Readily Available:Due to the ease of production and availability of oil based products in consistent qualities, a roll of rubber matting in the market today is most likely synthetic and not natural rubber. Odds are the 4x8 rubber mats we discussed earlier are a recycled rubber mat. Larger mats like this, usually made from recycled rubber, tend to be even cheaper than either of our two options here.
Now you know more about the different types of rubber! It is truly a unique compound, with an expansive background and history. Also, because rubber is so common, you are sure to come across it daily in a range of applications!