Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Beckman Infrared Spectrometer

“The metamorphosis of the spectrometer into a routine analytical tool occurred where it was needed—in industry—and not in the university, where it was not. Further, it occurred under the pressures of war.” (From Classical to Modern Chemistry, 13)


Beckman IR-1

Beckman IR-1 Spectrophotometer, ca. 1941 On loan from Beckman-Coulter Inc. Photograph by Gregory Tobias.

The technically minded individuals, according to Green, had a special collaborative role: keeping the government from “making stupid mistakes.” But what the scientists involved were able to achieve is staggering: the process of polymerization was improved as existing equipment was modified to allow processing of synthetic rubber equal to that of natural rubber; analytical methods were developed for quality control; and a number of chemists made gains in basic research on the government Buna rubber, working on both its mechanism and its chemical structure.

According to the book From Classical to Modern Chemistry: The Instrumental Revolution, great advances in the development and use of infrared (IR) spectroscopy occurred during the World War II rubber crisis. Beginning in the 1930s the petroleum industry became interested in IR techniques, which resulted in a cooperative enterprise between the American Petroleum Industry and the National Bureau of Standards. These organizations determined that the true benefit of IR spectroscopic analysis lay in the fact that IR absorptions are distinct to different functional groups on a molecule. While the need for large-scale plants for synthesis of GR-S may seem an obvious technical need, the building of precise, accurate, and reliable analytical measurement tools was just as important to the success of the rubber problem. The benefits of IR spectroscopy over older analytical methods were numerous because the technique allowed chemical structures to be more easily determined: the structural differences between two very similar molecules—often the case with petroleum hydrocarbons—could even be distinguished.

Robert Brattain and the Beckman IR-1

Robert Brattain and the Beckman IR-1. Courtesy of Analytical Services, Shell Global Solutions (US) Inc. 

The Office of Rubber Reserve required IR spectroscopy for the analysis of the desired butadiene polymers as well as for the undesired hydrocarbons generated by the petroleum industry. Meeting secretly in Detroit with Robert Brattain of the Shell Development Company, Arnold O. Beckman, and R. Bowling Barnes of American Cyanamid, the Rubber Reserve set the stage for a revolution in IR spectroscopic techniques and equipment—to the benefit of the wartime efforts to solve the rubber problem. 

At this meeting the Office of Rubber Reserve made the decision, first, to use the infrared techniques, and second, they thought that Bob Brattain's design was the one to go on. That was a single-beam thing…very, very crude, it had no relation to an infrared like you saw later. Its parts were assembled on a surface plate to get a flat surface. (Beckman, 14b, 16).

Beckman Instruments produced the Beckman IR-1 in 1942 specifically for the Rubber Reserve. By 1945 approximately 75 of the IR-1s had been made—entirely for use by the U.S. synthetic-rubber effort. No one was allowed to publish or discuss anything related to the new machines until the war was over. The Beckman IR-1 is an excellent example of how now-common tools or research advances were brought about by the demands of both war and industrial innovations.

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