Natural rubber is obtained from the milky secretion (latex) of various plants, but the only important commercial source of natural rubber (sometimes called Pará rubber) is the tree Hevea brasiliensis. The only other plant under cultivation as a commercial rubber source is guayule ( Parthenium argentatum ), a shrub native to the arid regions of Mexico and the SW United States. To soften the rubber so that compounding ingredients can be added, the long polymer chains must be partially broken by mastication, mechanical shearing forces applied by passing the rubber between rollers or rotating blades. Thus, for most purposes, the rubber is ground, dissolved in a suitable solvent, and compounded with other ingredients, e.g., fillers and pigments such as carbon black for strength and whiting for stiffening; antioxidants; plasticizers, usually in the form of oils, waxes, or tars; accelerators; and vulcanizing agents. The compounded rubber is sheeted, extruded in special shapes, applied as coating or molded, then vulcanized. Most Pará rubber is exported as crude rubber and prepared for market by rolling slabs of latex coagulated with acid into thin sheets of crepe rubber or into heavier, firmly pressed sheets that are usually ribbed and smoked.
An increasing quantity of latex, treated with alkali to prevent coagulation, is shipped for processing in manufacturing centers. Much of it is used to make foam rubber by beating air into it before pouring it into a vulcanizing mold. Other products are made by dipping a mold into latex (e.g., rubber gloves) or by casting latex. Sponge rubber is prepared by adding to ordinary rubber a powder that forms a gas during vulcanization. Most of the rubber imported into the United States is used in tires and tire products; other items that account for large quantities are belting, hose, tubing, insulators, valves, gaskets, and footwear. Uncoagulated latex, compounded with colloidal emulsions and dispersions, is extruded as thread, coated on other materials, or beaten to a foam and used as sponge rubber. Used and waste rubber may be reclaimed by grinding followed by devulcanization with steam and chemicals, refining, and remanufacture.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.