All rubberlike materials are polymers, which are high molecular weight compounds consisting of long chains of one or more types of molecules, such as monomers. Vulcanization (or curing) produces chemical links between the loosely coiled polymeric chains; elasticity occurs because the chains can be stretched and the crosslinks cause them to spring back when the stress is released. Natural rubber is a polyterpene, i.e., it consists of isoprene molecules linked into loosely twisted chains. The monomer units along the backbone of the carbon chains are in a cis arrangement (see isomer) and it is this spatial configuration that gives rubber its highly elastic character. In gutta-percha, which is another natural polyterpene, the isoprene molecules are bonded in a trans configuration leading to a crystalline solid at room temperature. Unvulcanized rubber is soluble in a number of hydrocarbons, including benzene, toluene, gasoline, and lubricating oils.
Rubber is water repellent and resistant to alkalies and weak acids. Rubber's elasticity, toughness, impermeability, adhesiveness, and electrical resistance make it useful as an adhesive, a coating composition, a fiber, a molding compound, and an electrical insulator. In general, synthetic rubber has the following advantages over natural rubber: better aging and weathering, more resistance to oil, solvents, oxygen, ozone, and certain chemicals, and resilience over a wider temperature range. The advantages of natural rubber are less buildup of heat from flexing and greater resistance to tearing when hot.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.