Natural rubber comes from trees planted in huge plantations.

Natural rubber comes from trees planted in huge plantations.

Natural rubber is made from the sap, called latex (say lay-tecks), of the rubber tree.

The trees originated in Central and South America. The Indians collected drops of sap which oozed from the bark. When explorers first went there, they saw the Indians playing with rubber balls and using rubber in a number of ways.

A timeline of the development of rubber

  • In 1735 a French explorer, Charles de la Condamine, took home some hardened rubber latex from Peru.

  • In 1770 an English chemist discovered that the material rubbed out pencil marks, and so we get the name rubber. Scientists discovered that latex dissolved in turpentine made a liquid that could make fabric waterproof.

  • In the 1820s English inventor Thomas Hancock built a machine that kneaded scraps of latex into a solid mass, and this led to the rubber processing of today.

Read about Thomas Hancock

  • In 1832 Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh began making raincoats by putting a layer of rubber between two layers of cloth. This kind of coat is still called a macintosh. Manufacturers started making rubber products, including shoes, elastic bands, hoses and tubes. These early products got sticky in hot weather and stiff in cold. 

Read about Charles Macintosh

  • In 1839 American inventor Charles Goodyear discovered a way to make rubber stronger and less likely to be affected by seasons. He called the process vulcanisation, and it meant that rubber could be used in more products, such as between moving parts of machinery. 

Read about Charles Goodyear

  • Until the 1870's most rubber came from Brazil and other parts of South America.

  • In 1876 Sir Henry Wickham took some seeds to England and grew seedlings. The seedlings were later planted in large farms called plantations, in Africa, Central and South America and in Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. The cultivated trees produced more latex than the wild trees.

Today, more than 80% of the world's natural rubber is grown in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Latex drips from the rubber tree Getty Images

Latex drips from the rubber tree Getty Images

Processing natural rubber

Rubber trees grow best in hot, moist climates. The trees grow straight, 18-20 metres high with smooth bark and dark, shiny leaves. The tree has pale yellow blossoms, which give way to seed pods containing 3 brown seeds about 2-3 cm long. Latex containing rubber flows through the outer wood of the trunk, just under the bark. Workers called tappers collect the latex. They cut a shallow groove in the bark about one metre from the ground. At the bottom of the cut, a small spout is inserted into the tree, and a cup hangs below it to catch the drops of latex that ooze from the cut. Trees are generally tapped every day for 15 days, then rested for 15 days. It takes about six years before a rubber tree is ready to be tapped. In the past, an acid was added to the latex to make the sap set like a jelly. The latex jelly was then flattened and rolled into sheets and hung out to dry by workers. 

Liquid latex is now shipped to factories where the rubber is made by machines. It can be coloured and made into many products. The latex is poured into tanks, and an equal amount of water is added. This liquid is strained to remove dirt. Formic acid is added to make the mixture form solid particles, which rise to the surface to form a crust of rubber. This is fed through rollers to squeeze out the water to make a solid sheet of rubber. This is called crude rubber, and is ready to be shipped to factories to be processed in different ways to make many different products.

Synthetic rubber was invented to make car tyres Getty Images

Synthetic rubber was invented to make car tyres Getty Images

Synthetic rubber

With the invention of the motor car, the demand for rubber rose to make tyres. There wasn't enough coming from plantations to meet the demand. Scientists began to experiment to make rubber from chemicals. Synthetic rubber was first made in the 1930s. It is made from petroleum, coal, oil, natural gas, and acetylene. Synthetic rubber is called latex, (used to make gloves) silicone (used to make footwear and in cars) and neoprene (used to make wet suits)

Today synthetic rubber accounts for about 60% of the world's rubber production.

Properties of rubber

  • Rubber is elastic. It stretches.
  • Rubber is waterproof. So it can be used to seal around things to keep out water.
  • It doesn't tear easily.
  • It floats. 
Waterproof rubber keeps our feet dry. Getty Images

Waterproof rubber keeps our feet dry. Getty Images

Uses of rubber

Most rubber is used for tyres for cars, large vehicles and planes. Rubber is also used to make many mechanical parts such as gaskets, belts and seals. Other rubber products include waterproof clothing, gloves, hats, shoes and boots. Medical equipment made of rubber includes hot water bottles, gloves, syringes, tapes, oxygen tents, hearing aids and many more.

Swimmers wear goggles,caps and flippers made of rubber. Many sports use rubber equipment, such as golf balls and other rubber balls. Rubber products seal jars, are used in toys and paints and for recreation. Sponge and foam rubbers are used to make bedding and other furniture, cushions and pillows, and as insulation.

Recycling Rubber

  • Making new rubber from recycled rubber can cost half of what it takes to make natural or synthetic rubber.
  • Recycled rubber products take less energy to produce. And using less energy is good for the environment. 
  • It conserves non-renewable petroleum products, which are used to produce synthetic rubbers. 
  • Recycling gives work to people. 

Did you know?

  • More than 20 million tyres are disposed of each year in Australia. They take up space in landfill, pollute the environment and are a fire hazard.
  • Old tyres can be recycled to be burned in incinerators as a source of fuel. 
  • In Australia, some cement factories use waste tyres as a fuel source. Recycled tyres can be used to make new tyres, used as road pavement and running tracks, and used to make flooring.

You can read more about rubber here