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Vulcanization or vulcanisation is a chemical process for converting rubber or related polymers into more durable materials via the addition of sulfur or other equivalent curatives or accelerators. These additives modify the polymer by forming crosslinks (bridges) between individual polymer chains. Vulcanized materials are less sticky and have superior mechanical properties.
Although the curing of rubber has been carried out since prehistoric times, the modern process of vulcanization, named after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, was not discovered until the 19th century. Today, a vast array of products are made with vulcanized rubber including tires, shoe soles, hoses, and conveyor belts. Hard vulcanized rubber is sometimes sold under the brand names ebonite or vulcanite, and is used to make articles such as clarinet and saxophone mouth pieces, bowling balls and hockey pucks.
History of vulcanization of rubber
Although vulcanization is a 19th-century invention, the history of rubber cured by other means goes back to prehistoric times. The name "Olmec" means "rubber people" in the Aztec language. Ancient Mesoamericans, spanning from ancient Olmecs to Aztecs, extracted latex from Castilla elastica, a type of rubber tree in the area. The juice of a local vine, Ipomoea alba, was then mixed with this latex to create processed rubber as early as 1600 BC. In the western world, rubber remained a curiosity, although it was used to produce waterproofed products such as Mackintosh rainwear.
Identifying the inventor of the vulcanization process is complex. Charles Goodyear (1800–1860) is generally credited as the first to come up with the basic concept. However, he never fully understood the process. On the other hand, Thomas Hancock (1786–1865), a scientist and engineer, was the first to patent vulcanization of rubber and indeed, he understood vulcanization better than Goodyear. But Hancock himself was likely inspired from seeing Goodyear's earlier samples. Hancock was awarded a British patent on May 21, 1844. Three weeks later, Goodyear was awarded a patent in the United States.
Goodyear claimed that he had discovered vulcanization earlier, in 1839. He wrote the story of the discovery in 1853 in his autobiographical book Gum-Elastica. Here is Goodyear's account of the invention, taken from Gum-Elastica. Although the book is an autobiography, Goodyear chose to write it in the third person, so that "the inventor" and "he" referred to in the text are the author. He describes the scene in a rubber factory where his brother worked:
... The inventor made some experiments to ascertain the effect of heat on the same compound that had decomposed in the mail-bags and other articles. He was surprised to find that the specimen, being carelessly brought into contact with a hot stove, charred like leather.
Goodyear goes on to describe how his discovery was not readily accepted.
He directly inferred that if the process of charring could be stopped at the right point, it might divest the gum of its native adhesiveness throughout, which would make it better than the native gum. Upon further trial with heat, he was further convinced of the correctness of this inference, by finding that the India rubber could not be melted in boiling sulfur at any heat, but always charred. He made another trial of heating a similar fabric before an open fire. The same effect, that of charring the gum, followed. There were further indications of success in producing the desired result, as upon the edge of the charred portion appeared a line or border, that was not charred, but perfectly cured.
… On ascertaining to a certainty that he had found the object of his search and much more, and that the new substance was proof against cold and the solvent of the native gum, he felt himself amply repaid for the past, and quite indifferent to the trials of the future.
The discovery of the rubber-sulfur reaction revolutionized the use and applications of rubber, and changed the face of the industrial world. Formerly, the only way to seal a small gap between moving machine parts was to use leather soaked in oil. This was acceptable at moderate pressures, but above a certain point, machine designers had to compromise between the extra friction generated by packing the leather more tightly and greater leakage of steam. Vulcanized rubber offered the ideal solution. It could be formed to precise shapes and dimensions, it accepted moderate to large deformations under load and recovered quickly to its original dimensions once the load is removed. These qualities, combined with good durability and lack of stickiness, were critical for an effective sealing material. Further experiments in the processing and compounding of rubber by Hancock and his colleagues led to a more reliable process.
In 1905 George Oenslager discovered that a derivative of aniline called thiocarbanilide accelerated the reaction of sulfur with rubber, leading to shorter cure times and reducing energy consumption. This breakthrough was almost as fundamental to the development of the rubber industry as Goodyear's sulfur cure. Accelerators made the cure process faster, improved the reliability of the process and enabled vulcanization to be applied to synthetic polymers. One year after his discovery, Oenslager had found hundreds of applications for his additive. Thus, the science of accelerators and retarders was born. An accelerator speeds up the cure reaction, while a retarder delays it. In the subsequent century chemists developed other accelerators and ultra-accelerators, that are used in the manufacture of most modern rubber goods.
Natural vs vulcanized rubber
Uncured natural rubber is sticky, deforms easily when warm, and is brittle when cold. In this state, it is a poor material when a high level of elasticity is required. The reason for inelastic deformation of un-vulcanized rubber can be found in its chemical structure — rubber is composed of long polymer chains. These chains can move independently relative to each other, which lets the material change shape. Crosslinking introduced by vulcanization prevents the polymer chains from moving independently. As a result, when stress is applied the vulcanized rubber deforms, but upon release of the stress it reverts to its original shape.
In contrast with thermoplastic processes (the melt-freeze process that characterize the behavior of most modern polymers) vulcanization, in common with the curing of other thermosetting polymers, is generally irreversible. The cross-linking is usually achieved by the addition of sulfur, but other technologies are known, including peroxide-based systems.
The main polymers subjected to vulcanization are polyisoprene (natural rubber) and styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR), which are used for most passenger car tires. The "cure package" is adjusted specifically for the substrate and the application. The reactive sites—"cure sites"—are allylic hydrogen atoms. These C-H bonds are adjacent to carbon-carbon double bonds. During vulcanization, some of these C-H bonds are replaced by chains of sulfur atoms that link with a cure site of another polymer chain. These bridges contain between one and eight atoms. The number of sulfur atoms in the crosslink strongly influences the physical properties of the final rubber article. Short crosslinks give the rubber better heat resistance. Crosslinks with higher number of sulfur atoms give the rubber good dynamic properties but less heat resistance. Dynamic properties are important for flexing movements of the rubber article, e.g., the movement of a side-wall of a running tire. Without good flexing properties these movements rapidly form cracks and, ultimately, make the rubber article fail.
A variety of methods exist for vulcanization. The economically most important method (vulcanization of tires) uses high pressure and temperature after the curative has been added to the rubber. A typical vulcanization temperature for a passenger tire is 10 minutes at 170 °C. This process employs the technique known as compression molding, where the rubber article is intended to adopt the shape of the mold. Other methods, for instance to make door profiles for cars, use hot air vulcanization or microwave heated vulcanization (both continuous processes).
Five types of curing systems are in common use. They are:
- Sulfur systems
- Urethane crosslinkers
- Metallic oxides
Vulcanization with sulfur
By far the most common vulcanizing methods depend on sulfur. Sulfur, by itself, is a slow vulcanizing agent and does not vulcanize synthetic polyolefins. Even with natural rubber, large amounts of sulfur, as well as high temperatures and long heating periods are necessary and one obtains an unsatisfactory crosslinking efficiency with unsatisfactory strength and aging properties. Only with vulcanization accelerators can the quality corresponding to today's level of technology be achieved. The multiplicity of vulcanization effects demanded cannot be achieved with one universal substance; a large number of diverse additives, comprising the "cure package," are necessary.
The combined cure package in a typical rubber compound consist of sulfur together with an assortment of compounds that modify the kinetics of crosslinking and stabilize the final product. These additives include accelerators, activators like zinc oxide and stearic acid and antidegradants. The accelerators and activators are catalysts. An additional level of control is achieved by retarding agents that inhibit vulcanization until some optimal time or temperature. Antidegradants are used to prevent degradation of the vulcanized product by heat, oxygen and ozone.
Vulcanization of polychloroprene
The vulcanization of neoprene or polychloroprene rubber (CR rubber) is carried out using metal oxides (specifically MgO and ZnO, sometimes PbO) rather than sulphur compounds which are presently used with many natural and synthetic rubbers. In addition, because of various processing factors (principally scorch, this being the premature cross-linking of rubbers due to the influence of heat), the choice of accelerator is governed by different rules to other diene rubbers. Most conventionally used accelerators are problematic when CR rubbers are cured and the most important accelerant has been found to be ethylene thiourea (ETU) which, although being an excellent and proven accelerator for polychloroprene, has been classified as reprotoxic. The European rubber industry has started a research project SafeRubber to develop a safer alternative to the use of ETU.
Vulcanization of silicones
"Room-temperature vulcanizing" (RTV) silicone is constructed of reactive oil base polymers combined with strengthening mineral fillers. There are two types of room-temperature vulcanizing silicone:
- RTV-1 (One-component systems)
RTV-1 hardens due to the action of atmospheric humidity, a catalyst and acetoxysilane. Acetoxysilane, when exposed to humid conditions will form acetic acid. The curing process begins on the outer surface and progresses through to its core. The product is packed in airtight cartridges and is either in a fluid or paste form. RTV-1 silicone has good adhesion, elasticity and durability characteristics. The Shore A hardness can be varied between 18 and 60. Elongation at break can range from 150% up to 700%. They have excellent aging resistance due to superior resistance to UV radiation and weathering.
- RTV-2 (RTV_silicone, Two-component systems)
RTV-2 elastomer are two-component products that, when mixed, cure at room-temperature to a solid elastomer, a gel, or a flexible foam. RTV-2 remains flexible from -80 °C to +250 °C. Break down occurs at temperatures above 350 °C leaving an inert silica deposit that is non-flammable and non-combustible. They can be used for electrical insulation due to their dielectric properties. Mechanical properties are satisfactory. RTV-2 is used to make flexible moulds, as well as many technical parts for industry and paramedical applications.
Recycling and devulcanization
The market for new raw rubber or equivalent remains enormous, with North America alone using over 10 billion pounds (4.5 million tonnes) every year. The auto industry consumes approximately 79% of new rubber and 57% of synthetic rubber. To date, recycled rubber has not been used as a replacement for new or synthetic rubber in significant quantities, largely because the desired properties have not been achieved. Used tires are the most visible of the waste products made from rubber; it is estimated that North America alone generates approximately 300 million waste tires annually, with over half being added to existing stockpiles. It is estimated that less than 10% of waste rubber is reused in any kind of new product. The United States, the European Union, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Japan and the Middle East collectively produce about one billion tires annually, with estimated accumulations of three billion in Europe and six billion in North America.
The rubber recycling process begins with shredding. After the steel and reinforcing fibers are removed, and a secondary grinding, the resulting rubber powder is ready for product remanufacture. Until now this inert material could only be used in applications that do not require vulcanization. In the rubber recycling process, devulcanization begins with delinking of the sulfur molecules from the rubber molecules, facilitating the formation of new cross-linkages. Two main rubber recycling processes have been developed: the modified oil process and the water-oil process. With each of these processes, oil and a reclaiming agent are added to the reclaimed rubber powder, which is subjected to high temperature and pressure for a long period (5–12 hours) in special equipment followed by extensive mechanical post-processing. The reclaimed rubber from these processes has altered properties and is unsuitable for use in many products, including tires. Tires can be recycled into, among other things, hot melt asphalt, (typically as crumb rubber modifier recycled asphalt pavement), and as an aggregate in portland cement concrete
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