The evolution of synthetic rubber can trace its roots back to the inception of the petroleum industry, to the catalytic cracking of hydrocarbons and the substituting of one synthetic material for another. The properties of polymers were being resolved and improved upon by new production techniques within the field of organic chemistry. Complex elastic polymers were about to join the robust iron and hardened steel age at the cusp of the twentieth century, and neoprene would provide the required versatility.
Compounding all of the advantages of natural rubber with superior weather-resistance properties and the ability to withstand corrosive environments, neoprene was first introduced in the 1930’s. The material adopted the short and punchy moniker of neoprene in the early days of development, but the nascent synthetic was originally marketed as polychloroprene, a broad term that covered this new family of elastic polymers. As with the blossoming field of engineering plastic, this group of rubber substitutes possessed characteristics that could be chemically altered by a chemical engineer. Key properties were enhanced while others were subdued. This tailored chemical alteration process improved the familiar factors associated with rubber, multiplying the applications rubber could adopt without deteriorating.
There are always trade-offs to such chemical manipulations. Increase the dynamic elasticity of the substance and resilience is lost. Incorporate tensile strength into the neoprene formulation and elasticity is compromised. It’s the role of the chemist to balance these factors when working on a new project, to offset one characteristic so that the required property can dominate. Additionally, the neoprene synthetic pushes this key ability for optimization to the fore alongside several other crucial benefits that natural rubber cannot meet. Neoprene retains elasticity over a greater temperature range than other rubbers, staying flexible between -50°C to 120°C. The polymer is highly resistant to oils, grease, and to penetration by water, a feature that has made the rubber popular in scuba diving.
The polymerization process used to manufacture neoprene has vastly improved since the substance was first developed, making it a popular synthetic rubber. Today there are other synthetics with much the same properties as neoprene, but the material is superbly established across the modern world. It’s manufactured as tear-resistant rubber sheeting and abrasion-defeating conveyor belts, minimizing impact with powerful mechanical dampening force characteristics. The electrical isolating properties of the synthetic also make the rubber ideal for coating cables, even in outdoor conditions or freezing-cold compartments within high-altitude aircraft. These are inhospitable places where temperatures vary wildly, and components must retain their operational characteristics.
Having begun as a substitute for traditional rubber in oily environments, neoprene has been promoted to modern applications. Tailored as a versatile polymer, the synthetic is found in medical applications, passing critical medications through drip tubes, and in everyday usage, acting as pocket protectors and covers for a favourite laptop or tablet. Heavy industry finds the robust substance creatively structured as tough internal gaskets and durable moulded housings, or formulated in its elastic form to act as a window seal.