As its name suggests, the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis originally came from Brazil, from where it was introduced to such countries of the Far East as Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia, China, and Vietnam. During World War II, supplies of natural rubber from these nations were cut off just when there was a huge demand from the military—and that accelerated the development of synthetic rubbers, notably in Germany and the United States. Today, most natural rubber still comes from the Far East, while Russia and its former republics, France, Germany, and the United States are among the world’s leading producers of synthetic rubber. The world’s largest single source of latex rubber is the Harbel Rubber Plantation near Monrovia in Liberia, established in the 1920s and 1930s by the Firestone tire company.
How is rubber made?
It takes several quite distinct steps to make a product out of natural rubber. First, you have to gather your latex from the rubber trees using a traditional process called rubber tapping. That involves making a wide, V-shaped cut in the tree’s bark. As the latex drips out, it’s collected in a cup. The latex from many trees is then filtered, washed, and reacted with the acid to make the particles of rubber coagulate (stick together). The rubber made this way is pressed into slabs or sheets and then dried, ready for the next stages of production.
By itself, unprocessed rubber is not all that useful. It tends to be brittle when cold and smelly and sticky when it warms up. Further processes are used to turn it into a much more versatile material. The first one is known as mastication (a word we typically use to describe how animals chew food). Masticating machines “chew up” raw rubber using mechanical rollers and presses to make it softer, easier to work, and more sticky. After the rubber has been masticated, extra chemical ingredients are mixed in to improve its properties (for example, to make it harder wearing). Next, the rubber is squashed into shape by rollers (a process called calendering) or squeezed through specially shaped holes to make hollow tubes (a process known as extrusion). Finally, the rubber is vulcanized(cooked): sulfur is added and the rubber is heated to about 140°C (280°F).