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WWI: The Development of Synthetic Rubber

Rubber was in great demand during World War 1 for multiple purposes, which led to the mass development of synthetic rubber.

Synthetic rubber had first been developed in 1909 by a team of German scientists at the Bayer laboratory in Elberfeld, led by Fritz Hofmann, who succeeded in polymerising the compound isoprene. The organic chemist filed a patent to manufacture the world's first synthetic rubber in 1909.

rubber

© Goodyear

 

Why was synthetic rubber invented?

In a speech he gave in 1951, at the age of 85, Hofmann described how he had been "constantly on the lookout" for promising new research areas for his laboratory. He chose to develop synthetic rubber because it was "something that was lacking" in his own country.

He saw a big market for the product, as it would enable Germany to be free from having to import expensive natural rubber from overseas. In 1907, the Farbenfabriken chemical company, in Elberfeld, granted Hofmann the sum of one million marks to carry out his experimentation. However, he admitted his research "swallowed up that amount several times over", but he risked ploughing more money into the project. Finally, he saw the fruits of his labour after two years, filing the patent for synthetic rubber on 12th September 1909.

In 1910, the product was further developed by Russian scientist Sergei Vasiljevich Lebedev, who created polybutadiene - the first rubber polymer synthesised from butadiene. His invention led to the Tsarist empire's first large-scale commercial production of synthetic rubber during WW1.

 

How important was rubber during World War 1?

Rubber was a vital component of the Great War, mainly to manufacture tyres for military vehicles. This was the first time motorised vehicles had played a role in transporting troops and equipment during conflict. As a result, rubber became a raw material that carried great strategic importance.

A major benefit for the UK, the plantations in the British colonies of Ceylon and Malaya dominated the market at the time. By 1915, British Malaya was the world's biggest rubber supplier, with a global market share of 41%. However, between 1914 and 1918, the demand for rubber for tyres outstripped the supply, hence the increased use of synthetic rubber as the war progressed.

Another benefit of synthetic rubber was that it stopped the excess stripping of natural rubber in Malaya, where it was starting to have a detrimental ecological effect.

Methyl rubber was commonly used to fabricate truck tyres, which had to be replaced after 2,000km, so a constant supply was vital to the war effort. At the beginning of the conflict, the German tyre manufacturer, Continental, immediately lost 75% of its workforce when they enlisted in the army. Ironically, this had a negative impact on the military.

Due to the lack of rubber being produced, the German trucks often had to drive on iron tyres. This reduced their ability to navigate rough, muddy terrain and decreased the endurance and lifespan of the military vehicles' engines and bodywork.

Most of the synthetic rubber used by the Allied forces during the Great War came from the United States. The industry grew so rapidly that in 1916, the US Council of National Defence created the Motor Transport Committee to centralise operations.

Prior to the war, the US imported much of its rubber from Asia, but Japan controlled much of Asia's rubber supplies and consequently prohibited exports to America. The locally-produced synthetic rubber was a massive boost to the war effort.

 

Which were the most common military vehicles?

The most popular individual car manufactured for the military was the American Model T Ford, produced by Henry Ford. Around 25,000 were commissioned by the armed forces to transport troops and officers in Europe.

The French automobile industry provided 65,000 cars, trucks and other vehicles for the war effort. The British Associated Equipment Company started mass-producing military motor vehicles in 1915 and managed to provide 40,000 per year until 1918. In Italy, Fiat (Turin) was manufacturing 16,500 military vehicles a year by the end of the war.

Although the movement of troops, equipment and supplies across Europe relied heavily on the rail network during WW1, the motorisation of the military transport system was a valuable boost to the war effort.

Aside from tyres, rubber was also needed to make gaskets, driving belts and tubes, which were integral parts of the engines for motor vehicles and trains. It would not have been possible to operate effectively if the production of rubber had been unable to keep up with the growing demand.

 

How was rubber used in gas masks?

The threat of poison gas attacks was always present for the troops in the war zones. Germany attacked its enemies with toxic gases for the first time in April 1915, near Ypres in Belgium. This was the first time soldiers at the Front had faced the horrific threat of chemical warfare.

All the Allied nations joined forces to protect their troops. The use of gas masks began as a provisional interim arrangement. However, they soon became a sophisticated piece of military equipment, as their development continued.

The masks were made of rubber-coated textiles, which ensured they didn't let gas seep in. This was considered the only material suitable for masks to protect the soldiers. Another area where the production of rubber negatively impacted on Germany, their army's GM15 gas masks were made from a material originally manufactured as the Zeppelin airship's skin. It wasn't as long-lasting as the Allies' gas masks with their high-quality rubber seals.

Germany's rubber shortage continued, as its practice of secretly buying rubber from Allied nations through neutral third parties was outlawed as early as October 1914. Their GM15 gas mask soon needed replacing and subsequent models, the GM17 and GM18, were manufactured mainly from leather, which wasn't as effective as rubber.

Other items for the war effort that depended on rubber included waterproof clothing, boots and shoes, battery cases for submarines, cable insulators and medical products including caoutchouc gloves - the disposable, lightweight, hygienic gloves that we still use today.

 

Is synthetic rubber easy to produce?

The main product used in synthetic rubber is butadiene, an industrial by-product from the steam-cracking process of a hydrocarbon. It can come from natural gas, such as ethane and propane, or Naphtha, which is commonly used as a solvent. Butadiene is subject to getting supplies and the refining capacity.

Synthetic rubber proved useful during WW1 to bridge the gap in natural rubber supplies, as manufacturers created the product by mixing various items together such as oil, coal, acetylene and natural gas. It proved to be as durable as its natural equivalent.

However, after the conclusion of the war in 1918, the mass production of synthetic rubber declined, as it proved too costly to justify its continued production in peacetime, when natural rubber was more readily available again. That said, it had served a very important purpose in aiding the Allied war effort, providing a vital component for vehicles and other equipment, supplies and clothing.

 

Remembrance

On the 11th November, Coruba will be observing the 2-minute silence as a mark of our respect for those who lost their lives fighting for our freedom. We will remember them.



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