Checked content

Natural rubber

Related subjects: Materials science

Background Information

SOS Children offer a complete download of this selection for schools for use on schools intranets. A good way to help other children is by sponsoring a child

Latex being collected from a tapped rubber tree
Rubber tree plantation of Thailand (7 August 2011)

Natural rubber, also called India rubber or caoutchouc, as initially produced, consists of suitable polymers of the organic compound isoprene with minor impurities of other organic compounds plus water. Forms of polyisoprene that are useful as natural rubbers are classified as elastomers. Currently the rubber is harvested mainly in the form of the latex from certain trees. The latex is a sticky, milky colloid drawn off by making incisions into the bark and collecting the fluid in vessels. This process is called "tapping". The latex then is refined into rubber ready for commercial processing. Natural rubber is used extensively in many applications and products, either alone or in combination with other materials. In most of its useful forms it has a large stretch ratio, high resilience, and is extremely waterproof.


The major commercial source of natural rubber latex is the Pará rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis), a member of the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae. This species is widely used because it grows well under cultivation and a properly managed tree responds to wounding by producing more latex for several years.

Many other plants produce forms of latex rich in isoprene polymers, though not all produce usable forms of polymer as easily as the Pará rubber latex does; some of them require more elaborate processing to produce anything like usable rubber, and most are more difficult to tap. Some produce other desirable materials, for example gutta-percha (Palaquium gutta) and chicle from Manilkara species. Others that have been commercially exploited, or at least have shown promise as sources of rubber, include the rubber fig ( Ficus elastica), Panama rubber tree ( Castilla elastica), various spurges ( Euphorbia spp.), lettuce ( Lactuca species), the related Scorzonera tau-saghyz, various Taraxacum species, including common dandelion ( Taraxacum officinale) and Russian dandelion ( Taraxacum kok-saghyz), and guayule (Parthenium argentatum). To distinguish the tree-obtained version of natural rubber from the synthetic version, the term gum rubber is sometimes used.

Discovery of commercial potential

The para rubber tree is indigenous to South America. Charles Marie de La Condamine is credited with introducing samples of rubber to the Académie Royale des Sciences of France in 1736. In 1751, he presented a paper by François Fresneau to the Académie (eventually published in 1755) which described many of the properties of rubber. This has been referred to as the first scientific paper on rubber. In England, it was observed by Joseph Priestley, in 1770, that a piece of the material was extremely good for rubbing off pencil marks on paper, hence the name rubber. Later it slowly made its way around England.

South America remained the main source of the limited amounts of latex rubber that were used during much of the 19th century. In 1876, Henry Wickham gathered thousands of para rubber tree seeds from Brazil, and these were germinated in Kew Gardens, England. The seedlings were then sent to India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Indonesia, Singapore and British Malaya. Malaya (now Malaysia) was later to become the biggest producer of rubber. In the early 1900s, 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, Calcutta. The first commercial Hevea plantations in India were established at Thattekadu in Kerala in 1902.

In Singapore and Malaya, commercial production of rubber was heavily promoted by Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley, who served as the first Scientific Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888 to 1911. He distributed rubber seeds to many planters and developed the first technique for tapping trees for latex without causing serious harm to the tree. Because of his very fervent promotion of this crop, he is popularly remembered by the nickname "Mad Ridley".


Rubber latex

Rubber exhibits unique physical and chemical properties. Rubber's stress-strain behaviour exhibits the Mullins effect, the Payne effect, and is often modeled as hyperelastic. Rubber strain crystallizes.

Owing to the presence of a double bond in each repeat unit, natural rubber is susceptible to vulcanisation and sensitive to ozone cracking.

There are two main solvents for rubber: turpentine and naphtha (petroleum). The former has been in use since 1764 when François Fresnau made the discovery. Giovanni Fabbroni is credited with the discovery of naphtha as a rubber solvent in 1779. Because rubber does not dissolve easily, the material is finely divided by shredding prior to its immersion.

An ammonia solution can be used to prevent the coagulation of raw latex while it is being transported from its collection site.


In most elastic materials, such as metals used in springs, the elastic behaviour is caused by bond distortions. When force is applied, bond lengths deviate from the (minimum energy) equilibrium and strain energy is stored electrostatically. Rubber is often assumed to behave in the same way, but it turns out this is a poor description. Rubber is a curious material because, unlike in metals, strain energy is stored thermally.

In its relaxed state, rubber consists of long, coiled-up chains. When rubber is stretched, the chains are taut. Their kinetic energy is released as heat. The entropy and temperature increases during elongation but decreases during relaxation. This change in entropy is related to the changes in degrees of freedom. Relaxation of a stretched rubber band is thus driven by an decrease in entropy and temperature, and the force experienced is a result of the cooling of the material being converted to potential energy. Rubber relaxation is endothermic, and for this reason the force exerted by a stretched piece of rubber increases with temperature. 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 opposite to compression(although both undergo higher levels of thermal energy of an ideal gas, and relaxation is opposed to gas expansion (Note Rubber Bands last longer in the cold. A compressed and heated gas also exhibits "elastic" properties, for instance inside an inflated car tire. The fact that stretching is equivalent to compression is counter-intuitive, but it makes sense if rubber is viewed as a one-dimensional gas plus it is attached to other molecules. Stretching and heat increase the "space" available to each section of chain, because the molecules are pulled apart or even melted.

Vulcanization of rubber creates disulfide bonds between chains, so it limits the degrees of freedom. The result is that the chains tighten more quickly for a given strain, thereby increasing the elastic force constant and making rubber harder and less extensible.

When cooled below the glass transition temperature, the quasi-fluid chain segments "freeze" into fixed geometries and the rubber abruptly loses its elastic properties, although the process is reversible. This property it shared by most elastomers. At very low temperatures, rubber is rather brittle. This critical temperature is the reason 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. The gas molecules in the rubber were too close to their bound solid molecules(A partial phase change that separated the rubber molecules may have occurred), allowing the rubber to take on a more solid shape(A partial phase change to a more liquid and molecularly separated form would not be good either. Heated gas has a higher energy and Rubber must be kept at specific temperatures and probably should not be used on vehicles that undergo extreme temperature changes.

Chemical makeup

Latex is the polymer cis-1,4-polyisoprene) – with a molecular weight of 100,000 to 1,000,000. Typically, a small percentage (up to 5% of dry mass) of other materials, such as proteins, fatty acids, resins and inorganic materials (salts) are found in natural rubber. Polyisoprene can also be created synthetically, producing what is sometimes referred to as "synthetic natural rubber", but the synthetic and natural routes are completely different

Chemical structure of cis-polyisoprene, the main constituent of natural rubber. Synthetic cis-polyisoprene and natural cis-polyisoprene are derived from different precursors.

Some natural rubber sources called gutta-percha are composed of trans-1,4-polyisoprene, a structural isomer that has similar, but not identical, properties.

Natural rubber is an elastomer and a thermoplastic. Once the rubber is vulcanized, it will turn into a thermoset. Most rubber in everyday use is vulcanized to a point where it shares properties of both; i.e., if it is heated and cooled, it is degraded but not destroyed.

The final properties of a rubber item depend not just on the polymer, but also on modifiers and fillers like carbon black, factice, whiting, and a host of others.


Rubber particles are formed in the cytoplasm of specialized latex producing cells called laticifers within rubber synthesizing plants. Rubber particles are surrounded by a single phospholipid membrane with hydrophobic tails pointed inward. The membrane allows biosynthetic proteins to be sequestered at the surface of the growing rubber particle, which allows new monomeric units to be added from outside the biomembrane but within the lacticifer. The rubber particle is an enzymatically active entity that contains three layers of material, the rubber particle, a biomembrane, and free monomeric units. The biomembrane is held tightly to the rubber core due to the high negative charge along the double bonds of the rubber polymer backbone. Free monomeric units and conjugated proteins make up the outer layer. The rubber precursor is isopentenyl pyrophosphate (an allylic compound), which elongates by Mg2+-dependent condensation by the action of rubber transferase. The monomer adds to the pyrophosphate end of the growing polymer. The process displaces the terminal high energy pyrophosphate. The reaction produces a cis polymer. The initiation step is catalyzed by prenyltransferase, which converts three monomers of isopentenyl pyrophosphate into farnesyl pyrophosphate. The farnesyl pyrophosphate can bind to rubber transferase to elongate a new rubber polymer.

The required isopentenyl pyrophosphate is obtained from the mevalonate (MVA) pathway, which is derives from acetyl-CoA in the cytosol. In plants, isoprene pyrophosphate can also be obtained from 1-deox-D-xyulose-5-phosphate/2-C-methyl-D-erythritol-4-phosphate pathway within plasmids. The relative ratio of the farnesyl pyrophosphate initiator unit and isoprenyl pyrophosphate elongation monomer determines the rate of new particle synthesis versus elongation of existing particles. Though rubber is known to be produced by only one enzyme, extracts of latex have shown numerous small molecular weight proteins with unknown function. It is possible that the proteins serve as cofactors as there is a reduction of synthetic rate with complete removal.


Compression molded (cured) rubber boots before the flashes are removed

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. The remaining 44% are taken up by the general rubber goods (GRG) sector, which includes all products except tires and tubes.

Prehistoric uses

The first use of rubber was by the Olmecs, who centuries later passed on the knowledge of natural latex from the Hevea tree in 1600 BC to the ancient Mayans. They boiled the harvested latex to make a ball for a Mesoamerican ballgame.


Other significant uses of rubber are door and window profiles, hoses, belts, matting, flooring and dampeners (antivibration mounts) for the automotive industry. Gloves (medical, household and industrial) and toy balloons are also large consumers of rubber, 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 industries. Rubber is also commonly used to make rubber bands and pencil erasers. Many aircraft tires and inner tubes are still made of natural rubber due to the high cost of certification for aircraft use of synthetic replacements.

Textile applications

Rubber produced as a fibre 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 fibre or directly woven with other yarns into the fabric. In the early 1900s, 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 of chloroprene), a type of synthetic rubber as well as another more commonly used elastomer fibre, 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 resistance and elasticity, and to prevent it from perishing. The development of vulcanization is most closely associated with Charles Goodyear in 1839. Carbon black is often used as an additive to rubber to improve its strength, especially in vehicle tires.

Allergic reactions

Some people have a serious latex allergy, and exposure to certain natural latex rubber products such as latex gloves can cause anaphylactic shock. Depending on how the latex is processed, the antigenic proteins found in Hevea latex may be significantly reduced, as in Vytex Natural Rubber Latex or Talalay foam rubber.

Guayule latex is hypoallergenic and is being researched as a substitute to the allergy-inducing Hevea latexes. Unlike the tappable Hevea tree, these relatively small shrubs must be harvested whole and latex extracted from each cell.

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).

Retrieved from ""