Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Germany Trip: Post-War

Rubber Reserve Team in Germany, 1945

Detail of the Rubber Reserve Team in Germany, 1945. CHF Collections.

After the war American chemists and rubber-industry representatives once again traveled to Germany. This time facilities were in a far different state—damaged or destroyed by war. Evaluating how far the German scientists had come in developing a synthetic rubber was important to American chemists.

Paul Greer, as part of the Office of Synthetic Rubber, was able to analyze German synthetic-rubber samples received after the war. He noted that German research had not come as far as American research; German scientists had begun developing cold rubber processes and Greer says, “the idea had come from them” (18).

Marvel Report

Table of Contents from "The Status of Synthetic Rubber Research and Polymer Evaluation," by Carl Marvel. Carl S. Marvel Papers, CHF Collections. Click here for larger size.

One CHF interviewee, Carl Marvel, traveled to Germany after the war along with a group of representatives from various rubber companies. There Marvel was charged with researching the German redox polymerization process, which was a faster continuous process than the Americans had. Marvel and other chemists optimized this process to a lower-temperature polymerization, a process they could then complete in only seven hours, far less time than it had taken during the war.

Two other interviewees, Standard Oil employees A. Donald Green and Willard Asbury, visited Germany both before and after the war. Asbury traveled to Europe as part of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey and flew to Germany several times. Allied bombing had devastated towns and plants Asbury had visited during his stay in Germany in the 1930s. Asbury found German chemists with no idea where they would work or whom they would work for:

We saw some of our friends; I talked to [Heinrich] Buetefisch in Leuna, and he told me how serious the bombing had been in Leuna. I went to Leuna to get information on the [German-made] synthetic nitrogen plants that were in Japan. The plan was to use that information in any possible bombing of Japan before we invaded. Before I left, the man who had got me this information said, "Now I have to ask you a question. What do I do tomorrow? The Russians are coming here tomorrow. I can stay here and work for the Russians or I can go with the Americans. They'll take us out of here tomorrow night, and they'll load us in a bus or a truck, with one bag each, and they'll take us to the American sector. What should we do?" I don't know what he did; I never heard from him since. (Asbury and Green, 28)

In the 1950s Asbury and Green visited Germany again, where both noticed that while German industry was rebuilding itself, American chemical industry was now pulling away from its European competitors.

Hear Paul Greer

MORRIS (interviewer): Now we’ve already touched upon cold rubber […]: you've now given me this very interesting technical memorandum about cold rubber.  I know from my own work that it was originally developed by I. G. Farben about 1943, and there was also some work being done on cold rubber in Minnesota—was it?—before the end of the war. And then Carl Marvel and [John W.] Livingston came across it when they visited Germany in 1945.  And then, of course, the American research effort went into full tilt with cold rubber.  Leaving aside some of the more, sort of, technical questions associated with it, would you actually, sort of, just give a brief overview of how cold rubber was developed by the American program?

GREER: […] Well, of course, we had knowledge of the German processes that Livingston mentioned and also there had been some work done here with more effective catalysts, so it was a matter of adjusting and selecting, and experimenting with, and finally choosing the best polymerization formula to get this…to get the reaction to run at a low temperature in a reasonable time. And also not to get undesirable crosslinking and other properties in the rubber. You wanted to get the reaction to go at these low temperatures without detrimental effects on the rubber.  And most of the…many formulations, when they were run under these very vigorous catalytic conditions at low temperature resulted in poor quality rubber. But this…what we ended up with was a good quality rubber [made] at low temperature in a reasonable time. (25-26)

Hear It Firsthand

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