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Synthetic rubber and the need for sustainability


Synthetic rubber refers to any artificial rubber synthesized from monomers derived from petroleum by-products or those of natural origin. The former however made-up bulk of the synthetic rubbers that are in use today. Since the first successful synthesis of synthetic polyisoprene in 1887, there were many variations of synthetic rubbers developed throughout history. The brief timeline of the development of synthetic rubbers is shown in Fig. 1. Until today, there are more than 20 types of synthetic rubbers that are widely available in the market. Fig. 2 shows the data on demand and distribution of synthetic rubber by application in the year 2020, while a summary of the industrial production methods and properties of some commonly used synthetic rubbers is given in Table 1. Synthetic rubbers not only share many similar applications as natural rubber, but also provide an extended range of applications. The primary cause is that synthetic rubber is made using a wide range of monomers, resulting in a variety of rubber properties to be engineered, as opposed to natural rubber, which typically has just one chemical structure. For example, NBR has excellent oil resistance contributed by the polar nitrile group from acrylonitrile moiety in the rubber. The mechanical properties, oil, and chemical resistance of the rubber could be altered by manipulating the ratio of butadiene to acrylonitrile repeating units. Over the decades, the oils and gas industry has optimized the extraction and processing of crude oil and natural gas, resulting in the availability of cost-effective raw materials for synthetic rubbers. This is presumably one of the reasons to most of the synthetic rubber formulations and processing technologies used in the rubber industries today are still largely similar to those that were developed in the early days of synthetic rubber discovery.

Synthetic rubber and the need for sustainability
 Fig. 1 Timeline of the development of different synthetic rubbers. 
Synthetic rubber and the need for sustainability
 Fig. 2 Demand for synthetic rubber in 2020 according to rubber types, and their respective applications. 

Table 1 General description, properties, and applications of conventional synthetic rubbers

RubberMonomersIndustrial synthesis methodPropertiesApplications
Styrene butadiene rubber (SBR)StyreneHot emulsion polymerizationMore branched, lower molecular weight chainLightweight vehicle tire (passenger car, radical car, motorcycle thread), electrical insulation, hoses, seals, haul-off pads, shoe soles
ButadieneHigher Tg than cold & S-SBR
Good dimensional stability
Good extrusion characteristics
Cold emulsion polymerizationBetter abrasion resistance, tensile strength than hot e-SBR
Anionic solution polymerizationHigh molecular weight linear chain
Narrow molecular weight distribution
Excellent abrasion and fatigue resistance, mechanical properties
Better tire tread traction properties
Chloroprene (Neoprene)2-ChlorobutadieneEmulsion polymerizationHigh oil and solvent resistanceGloves, shock absorber seals, electrical insulation, asphalt, wetsuits, bearing pads
Good thermal, weather, ozone and aging resistance
High strength and stiffness resulted from stress-crystallization
Butyl rubber (IIR)IsobutyleneCationic slurry polymerizationExcellent water, air and gas permeability resistanceStopper, gas masks, sealant, gasket, hoses, o-rings, chewing gum base, waterproof liners
IsopreneGood low temperature flexibility
Low compatibility with other polymers, improved by halogenation (CIIR & BIIR)
Nitrile rubber (NBR)AcrylonitrileHot emulsion polymerizationExcellent oil and solvent resistanceEngine hoses, seals, gloves, oil and hydraulic seals, o-rings, waterproof fabrics, adhesives, pigment binder
ButadieneHigh green strength, low flexibility
Cold emulsion polymerizationLess branching chain than hot polymerized
Better processability than hot-NBR
Ethylene propylene diene rubber (EPDM)EthyleneSolution polymerizationWide temperature range of applicationRoofings, radiator hoses, door seals, gaskets, electrical connectors & insulators, water tank liners
PropyleneGood weather, UV, ozone and aging resistance
Dienes (1,4-hexadiene etc.)Good resistance to polar fluids, low non-polar solvent resistance
Low compatibility with other pol

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