The Incredible Story of Vulcanized Rubber

Today we remember Charles Goodyear, an American self-taught chemist who transformed the rubber industry.

In the 19th century, the lucrative rubber trade was carefully controlled by South America, where natural rubber trees grew.  After Britain smuggled seeds to its colonies, rubber became a major crop in India and Malaysia.

The rubber industry took off because the substance was waterproof.  But consumers soon learned the limitations of natural rubber.  In the cold winter, it froze bone-hard.  In the hot summer, it melted into glue.  Factories went bankrupt and investors lost millions.

Enter Charles Goodyear, who was fascinated by rubber’s elasticity.  “There is probably no other inert substance which so excites the mind,” he said.  While serving time in debtor’s prison, he spent hours playing with a lump of raw rubber.

In 1839, Goodyear committed one of “history’s most celebrated accidents.”  While showing off a mixture of rubber and sulfur in a general store, Goodyear unwittingly dropped his concoction on a hot stove.  Instead of melting, the rubber became like leather.  Goodyear had accidentally invented vulcanized rubber.

On June 15, 1844, the self-taught chemist obtained a U.S. patent for his invention.

But Goodyear continued to operate on the edge of poverty, making ridiculously bad business deals.  He let go of his manufacturing interests, which would have made him millions.  He sent a sample to a British rubber company, who reverse-engineered the vulcanization process and beat Goodyear to an English patent.  Goodyear ended up fighting more than 30 patent infringement cases over his lifetime.

When he died in 1860, Goodyear was $200,000 in debt.  He never saw his invention skyrocket with the rise of the automobile industry.  In fact, he was never associated with the company that now bears his name – Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the world’s largest rubber business.

Today, a huge problem with vulcanized rubber is its impact on the environment, due to the limited ability to recycle or dispose of it.  Many discarded products are simply burned or buried.

Researchers in China looked for ways to overcome the non-reversible, permanent chemical structures caused by vulcanization.  They found that CuCL2 (copper chloride) can serve as a catalyst to rearrange the inherent sulfur crosslinked networks in vulcanized rubber.

They hope their work “will provide the basis for extending the service life and developing new recycling techniques of vulcanized rubber, which is produced, used and scrapped in large quantities every day.”

The researchers used an Agilent high-performance HPLC with a UV detector to monitor their chemical processes.

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