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Rubber i s a naturally occurring hydrocarbon polymer with elastic properties. In its natural state, rubber, also known as latex, is tapped from several different types of trees the most important being Hevea brasiliensis, the major commercial source of natural rubber. This tree is native to the Amazon Basin in Brazil. It grows best at temperatures of 20-28 degrees C with a well-distributed annual rainfall of 1,800-2,000 millimeters.
Its prime growing area, between 10-degree latitudes on either side of the equator, is restricted by its required temperature and rainfall. Other plants containing latex include figs (Ficus elastica), euphorbias, and the common dandelion. Before 1910, most rubber was harvested from “wild trees” growing in the Amazon Basin and to a lesser extent from other natural sources of natural rubber such as Ficus elastica growing wild in the Congo Basin of Africa.
In 1876, Henry Wickham gathered over 70,000 seeds from the Brazilian rubber-bearing tree, Hevea brasiliensis, which he then smuggled to Kew Gardens in England. From there, Hevea was introduced to British colonial possessions in Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia by the British Colonial Office, where it was grown experimentally and later on plantations. Henry Wickham is accredited with having contributed greatly to the rubber plantation industry. Cultivation of rubber then spread throughout the tropics to Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand in Southeast Asia, and subsequently to Liberia, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire in Africa. Initially, cultivation took place on plantations, but smallholders rapidly adopted it as a source of income.
Although many people think that rubber originated in 19th-century Europe, the truth is that the ancient Mayan people used latex to make rubber balls, hollow human figures, temporary shoes, water-resistant cloth, and as bindings to secure axe heads to their handles. The Mayans learned to mix the rubber sap with the juice from morning glory vines so that it became more durable and elastic and less brittle. Both the rubber tree and the morning glory were important plants to the Mayan people-the latter being a hallucinogen as well as a healing herb. The rubber balls were used in an important ritual game and weighed as much as 15 pounds. The Spanish conquistadors were so astounded by the vigorous bouncing of the rubber balls of the Aztecs that they wondered if evil spirits enchanted the balls.
In the modern world, latex is collected from rubber trees by making incisions into the bark of the rubber tree and tying a container to the tree to allow the latex to drip into it overnight. Then the latex from the trees is poured into flat pans and mixed with formic acid as a coagulant. The sheets are then wrung out by putting them through a press before transportation to factories for vulcanization and further processing. The process of vulcanization entails the heating of the latex and the addition of sulfur and peroxide or Bisphenol to improve resilience and elasticity. From the 1830s on, vulcanization made rubber a very useful commodity by increasing its durability. Vulcanized rubber proved to be resistant to water and chemical interactions and did not conduct electricity, which made it an excellent candidate for the production of many products. Charles Goodyear is credited with discovering the process of vulcanization.
The unique physical and chemical characteristics exhibited by vulcanized rubber have made it an indispensable commodity in the modern world. The process of making rubber has improved with time, and now various chemicals are added before the mix is poured into molds, heated, and cured under pressure. For example, in the manufacturing of rubber destined for tires, carbon black is often added to rubber to further improve its strength.
New discoveries have resulted in the production of synthetic rubber made from crude oil. World War II cut off Germany and the United States from traditional sources of natural rubber supplies, which propelled the production of synthetic rubber. Synthetic rubber accounts for 50 percent of rubber supplies worldwide.
Over 90 percent of natural rubber production today takes place in Southeast Asia, notably Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. However, due to competition from synthetic rubber, the price of natural rubber has remained at levels below that which will sustain the industry. Output of natural rubber production in Malaysia has declined markedly in recent years, as cultivators have switched to other crops such as palm oil.
- Warren Dean, Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study in Environmental History (Cambridge University Press, 2002);
- Vernon Herbert, Synthetic Rubber: A Project That Had to Succeed (Greenwood Press, 1985);
- John Loadman, Tears of the Tree: The Story of Rubber-A Modern Marvel (Oxford University Press, 2005);
- G. Unny, The Indian Rubber Economy: History, Analysis, and Policy Perspectives (Manohar Publishers & Distributors, 1995).