Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Rubber

Washington, D.C., circa 1921. National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size here.

Styrene Structure

The 1930 collaborative JASCO agreement between I.G. Farben and Standard Oil of New Jersey accelerated the independent research programs of both companies. Farben had been working on butadiene rubber research, and the collaboration with Standard Oil ensured they would be able to get the raw material—petroleum—needed to produce quantities that were industrial in scale. Other U.S. companies were not able to gain access to any of the research improvements patented by I.G. Farben, as Standard Oil had beaten them to it. In 1937 B.F. Goodrich sent Waldo Semon to Germany where he:

had contact with the I.G. Farben Industry, and tried to arrange some sort of a contract so that B.F. Goodrich could manufacture synthetic rubber in this country. Hitler was in power at that time. It was impossible to get any technical information on synthetic rubber from Germany. However, we had been working in the laboratory quite successfully in making polymers. So, it was really a great experience...to ride around Germany on tires made from Buna-S at that time. (Semon, no pagination)
Acrylonitrile Structure

Germany clearly understood the necessity of, and manufacturing process for, synthetic rubber before the war; the United States remained far behind in technological understanding and expertise.

Throughout the 1930s synthetic-rubber research in the United States was mainly the purview of industrial scientists and therefore was a very competitive practice. All the big rubber companies were pursuing synthetic rubber independently. Albert Clifford of Goodyear noted that they: 

had already ascertained that butadiene was suitable... [but Goodyear was] in quest of other materials that could be used as co-monomers [different, small molecules that can be bonded together to form polymers] with it. As this work went on, it became more and more apparent that we would probably have to settle for either styrene or acrylonitrile [to form a copolymer] as the quick way of getting into synthetic-rubber production. (Clifford, no pagination)

The knowledge gained through repeated laboratory experimentation did start to pay off for American companies. Scaling up reactions led to the first full-scale, viable production lines that could complement the supply of natural rubber, easing the volatility of the market. Goodyear:

developed pilot plant facilities in the mid-1930s, and larger-scale equipment became available in the late 1930s, largely through the efforts of the organic section who worked out the types of vessels that would be necessary for polymerization under pressure at temperatures of the order of 40° to 60° Centigrade [104°F to 140°F] or higher. The kind of enamel for the lining of these vessels and the kind of stirrers to be employed in them, and so on, were important. [...] By about the late 1930s, [we at Goodyear had graduated] from vessels of one-liter size, which itself was quite an accomplishment from the glass tube or bottle, to a five-gallon reactor, and then fifteen-gallon reactors, fifty-gallon reactors, and finally, to one-hundred-gallon reactors. As [Clifford] remember[s] by about 1938, [Goodyear] had five-hundred-gallon reactors and [was] in the process of engineering...twelve-hundred-gallon experimental reactors for producing synthetic rubber legacies. (Clifford, no pagination)

By the late 1930s, despite a lack of collaboration, the American rubber industry had made some progress.

Continue to next section >

Polymers, A Brief History

What are polymers, when did they become important, and how is this related to rubber? Read More >

Visiting Prewar Germany

In the 1930s numerous scientists travelled to Germany, still the leader in chemical industry. Our oral history interviewees describe their experiences. Read More >

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