Synthetic rubber refers to virtually any rubber material that is manmade. Synthetic rubber mimics the desirable properties of natural rubber and is used in many of the same applications. There is a wide range of synthetic rubbers available on the market, many of which boast unique performance attributes that natural rubber does not possess.
Demand for synthetic rubber is incredibly high: In 2021, the synthetic rubber market was valued at $28.89 billion—and is expected to surpass $41 billion by 2029.
What is Synthetic Rubber Made Of?
There are a few key differences between synthetic rubber and natural rubber, starting with the production process. While natural rubber is usually desired from natural rubber latex, synthetic rubber is made from petroleum byproducts.
Synthetic Rubber Production Process
The step-by-step process of making synthetic rubber starts with a hydrocarbon mixture, usually from oil or coal. In its liquid form, this mixture is called “naphtha.” The naphtha is introduced to natural gas, which triggers a reaction that produces monomers. A monomer may be thought of as the first building block of synthetic rubber: Multiple identical monomers must bind together to create a polymer. Chemical agents are then introduced, which triggers the polymers to create polymer chains.
The next step is a process called “vulcanization.” In simple terms, vulcanization is a hardening process that transforms polymer chains into a rubber substance. This is achieved via the addition of specific accelerating agents, such as polychloroprene or sulfur. After vulcanization, the synthetic rubber material can be processed, molded, or otherwise shaped.
Types of Synthetic Rubber
There are many varieties of synthetic rubber, each offering its own portfolio of performance attributes and desirable characteristics.
Butyl rubber is a copolymer of isobutylene and isoprene.There are many applications for butyl rubber, but this synthetic rubber is popular for a few key products. Tire inner tubes, speakers, roofing, and gas masks are often made with butyl. Butyl is also used by the pharmaceutical and sporting industries.
Easily recognized by its commercial name, neoprene, chloroprene was first developed in the 1930s. Many consumer products, such as wetsuits, laptop sleeves, cycling clothes, and costumes, are made with chloroprene. Civil engineers also rely on chloroprene for bridge construction.
Chlorinated polyethylene (CPE)
CPE is often added to other materials to improve their weather and impact resistance qualities.
Ethylene propylene diene monomer rubber (EPDM) rubber
EPDM is an extremely popular synthetic rubber material with applications in many industries because of its excellent sealing, durability, and resistance properties. The construction and automotive industries both use EPDM for weather stripping and seals. It’s also used for a variety of consumer products and electronics.
Fluoroelastomers remain stable even when subjected to extreme heat for a long time and are often used in high-temperature environments. FKM is also highly resistant to flame, aging, oils, ozone, and many other chemicals.
Nitrile’s resistance to oil, fuel, and chemicals sets it apart from other synthetic rubbers. Nitrile is used to make automotive and aerospace hoses, seals, and more. Consumer products made from nitrile include shoes, floor mats, and gloves.
Most polybutadiene rubber is used to manufacture tires. But this synthetic rubber can also be found in golf ball cores and plastic compounds.
Styrene-butadiene (SBR) rubber
SBR offers excellent abrasion resistance and remains stable as it ages. SBR is found in roughly half of all tires, along with shoe soles, gaskets, coatings, and more.
Thermoplastic vulcanizates (TPV)
Known commercially as Santoprene, TPV is a close duplicate of EPDM rubber. TPV offers excellent sealing properties, is fully recyclable, and is comfortable to the touch. TPV is found in many automotive components, household appliances, construction materials, and more.
Uses of Synthetic Rubber
The applications for synthetic rubber are nearly limitless. Perhaps the largest consumer of synthetic rubbers is the automotive industry. Tires, seals, o-rings, gaskets, hoses, belts, and other components throughout the vehicle are often made with synthetic rubbers. The aerospace industry uses synthetic rubbers for many of these same components. The construction industry also relies heavily on synthetic rubber for seals, flooring, roofing, and other applications.
Another major consumer of synthetic rubbers is the medical industry. Synthetic rubbers are safe for patients who are sensitive or allergic to latex and thus are often used for tubing and other products that come into direct contact with the skin. Healthcare professionals also rely on synthetic rubber for protective equipment, medical components, and much more.
Everyday consumers will find synthetic rubber all throughout their daily lives. Shoes, sporting goods, kitchen tools, and even chewing gum contain synthetic rubber of all kinds.
Synthetic rubber testing from ACE Laboratories
The rubber experts at ACE Laboratories have years of industry and laboratory experience working with synthetic rubbers. We are well versed in the many benefits and challenges of synthetic rubbers and can help you optimize your products to capitalize on the most valuable properties of these man-made polymers.
Our accredited rubber testing labs are fully equipped for a robust portfolio of test methods and analytical methods so we can deliver all the data and guidance you need to develop and launch your product. This includes raw material validation and selection, mixing studies, prototyping, performance and durability testing, failure analysis, and more.
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