GENERAL ARTICLES

RUBBEK CRISIS

"This is not a shortage. It is not a bottleneck. .... It is a famine"

KENNETH R. WILSON April 1 1942
GENERAL ARTICLES

RUBBEK CRISIS

"This is not a shortage. It is not a bottleneck. .... It is a famine"

KENNETH R. WILSON April 1 1942

RUBBEK CRISIS

"This is not a shortage. It is not a bottleneck. .... It is a famine"

KENNETH R. WILSON

THIS IS about a crisis—a crisis in rubber.

“Rubber is the gravest problem confronting the United Nations. The rubber shortage is so serious that our ability to fight an all-out war is imperilled,” declares Allan H. Williamson, Canada’s wartime Controller of Supplies.

And Controller Williamson is pointing his finger directly at you who drive the million and a quarter passenger cars in Canada. “The ordinary car user will have to get along on his present tires and when these tires are worn out, lay up his car for the duration. Driving for pleasure is wasting rubber.” ,, Other authorities put it even more bluntly. “There just isn’t any rubber for civilian use!” they will tell you emphatically. And they add that half a million motor cars will vanish from Canadian streets and highways by January, 1943.'

You will be fortunate if you are even permitted to drive your car until your present tires are worn out. It may be necessary to commandeer all spare tires and possibly even your car’s four “regulars,” impounding them for the use of essential vehicles.

Why?

The answer is as simple as second-grade arithmetic. Of 1,400,000 tons of rubber produced in the world last year, all but 65,000 tons came from the Far East. More than a million tons came from Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies alone.

As this is written Japanese forces have landed on Java. They have already seized the rubber plantations in Malaya. North America faces a devastating rubber famine.

For years North Americans have been both prodigal and ingenious in their use of rubber. One company alone made 33,000 rubber products, if all the sizes, colors and styles it produced are counted. There are 300 rubber parts in your automobile400 different pieces in a twin-engined airplane. The skilled surgeon uses rubber gloves of tissue thinness when he operates. Rubber gloves nearly a tenth of an inch thick and tested to withstand 16,000 volts protect the electrician’s hands.

One firm on this continent turned out as many as twelve million rubber bands a day. And there are bigger rubber bands (the biggest and the costliest things in rubber) weighing fifteen tons and measuring twelve feet in diameter. These are rolls of conveyor belting, five feet in width and more than a quarter of a mile long.

Rubber has been the handmaiden of practically every modern electrical device—lights and telegraph, radio and power lines, vacuum cleaner and refrigerator. It found its way into farm and factory. In the form of rubber hose it drills for gold and other metals. As the ally of steel, petroleum

and glass it has been the Man Friday of modern transportation. Three quarters of the rubber which reached the United States and Canada went into making tires for the 35,000,000 motor vehicles which speed along the highways of this continent.

Now, overnight our rubber life line has been cut. Though we cannot move, eat, clothe or house ourselves in the manner to which we are accustomed without rubber, our supply for civilian needs has gone—utterly and completely. We will be hardpressed to meet the needs of the armed services and maintain war production and essential services.

Here are some stark truths:

There is not a pound of crude rubber in sight for ordinary civilian use so long as the war lasts.

Reclaimed rubber is not a substitute for crude— at best it is an “extender” with very limited use so far as tires are concerned.

There is no hope of developing adequate sources of crude rubber in countries other than those from which it was formerly received.

Synthetic rubber is our only alternate for crude, yet the pathway to full-fledged commercial synthetic-rubber production is still thorny and tortuous.

Canada’s heavy war commitments make our plight especially serious. It is difficult to see how even our military needs can be met prior to the manufacture of synthetic rubber, not now produced anywhere in the Dominion. It is more than likely the United States will have to help us out with supplies of crude from her own slim stores.

The crude rubber stock pile of Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom at the beginning of 1942 was possibly 800,000 tons—little more than half one year’s peak production. Crude consumption of these three countries last year amounted to 900,000 tons, about three quarters of which was consumed by the United States. Almost the entire British consumption went to war needs, as did more than fifty per cent of the 60,000 tons

used by Canada. The only real “cushion” was the fact that only twenty per cent of U.S. consumption was for war or defense purposes.

“Reclaim”

WHAT ABOUT alternate sources of supply? First, there is reclaimed or regenerated

rubber.

Rubber is reclaimed by reversing the process through which crude rubber is originally vulcanized. Rubber scrap is first pulverized, then softened with oils and chemicals and its fabric content dissolved either by acid or alkali. The sticky mass which results may then be mixed with natural rubber or may be compounded alone for use in many products.

Just recently the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company put on exhibit its first emergency wartime tire, made in Canada solely from reclaimed or regenerated rubber. Such tires are still in the experimental stage.

Canada has comparatively little capacity for reclaiming rubber. Normally, we obtain up to three quarters of our reclaimed rubber supply from the United States. That country stepped up its reclaimed rubber production by almost fifty per cent in 1941 and produced 270,000 tons, which is within 50,000 tons of maximum capacity. Theoretically, the supply of scrap to feed these plants could be expanded to 400,000 tons annually for the next year or two. Yet a recent survey showed that the scrap supply was drying up almost overnight, because of the war boom in recapping and repairing old tires. Canada is launching a nation-wide rubber scrap campaign with an objective of 25,000 tons in 1942. Of that amount about 18,000 tons of “reclaim” will be available for war purposes.

The reason that reclaim is not a substitute for crude is this: one half the weight of a standard army vehicle tire represents crude rubber. So far, we haven’t found a sure-fire way to cut that crude content by more than eight to fifteen per cent without undermining performance. It isn’t that the Army is finicky any more about its tires. But if a larger portion of reclaimed rubber were to be used, the results might in the long run mean a wastage of the original crude.

Reclaimed rubber will find important uses elsewhere than in tires. For example, last year it took 2,500 tons of natural rubber to replace motor car fan belts and belts on domestic appliances on this continent. The use of reclaim for this purpose would save those 2,500 tons of natural rubber.

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Rubber Crisis

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WHAT ABOUT alternate sources of crude rubber?

The outlook is not too hopeful. Thirty years ago, Brazil, and other countries where rubber grows “wild,” accounted for 83,000 tons of the world total of 94,000. By 1940, out of world production of 1,400,000 tons, only 22,000 came from the Amazon valley and from Mexico.

The fact is that modern rubber development dates from the year 1876, when Sir Henry Wickham changed rubber destiny and world history by transporting 70,000 seeds of wild Hevea first to England and then to Ceylon. These seeds were the foundlings upon which the vast, Far Eastern plantations, now numbering seven to eight hundred million trees, were built. It is plantation rubber which has changed the course of world history, not the wild rubber which still flourishes in its native Amazon haunts. At some future date, hut certainly not in time to provide a solution to the present rubber crisis, cultivated rubber plantations may yet flourish on the North or the South American continent.

It was with this thought in mind that in 1929 the Ford Motor Company created Fordlandia, a 2,500,000

acre tract in Brazil which, it was hoped, .would make the company independent of Far Eastern supply. Thousands of seedlings were transplanted from the Far East to Fordlandia, and to the newer Ford plantation at Belterra, Brazil. Yet now, thirteen years later, Archie Johnson, manager of the Ford properties in Brazil, states that it will require at least twelve more years to obtain production on the Western hemisphere in sufficient quantity to meet this continent’s needs.

Mr. Johnson says that even after the hazards of plant disease and climate have been overcome, labor still remains a problem. It takes thousands of workers to operate a big rubber plantation and this type of labor does not exist in the Amazon valley. Even high wages and model communities for workers have failed to attract sufficient civilian labor to the general areas where the plantations are located. The Ford plantation will probably not ship more than 750 tons of latex rubber to Dearborn in 1942. Its goal, prior to Pearl Harbor, was 7,500 tons by 1950.

Brazilian production is estimated at 18,000 tons, 7,000 of which were exported and the balance retained

for consumption in the rubber industry of South Brazil and the Argentine. The most optimistic forecast for South America, as a result of current Pan-American negotiations, is an output of 30,000 to 45,000 tons by 1944.

In 1928 the Goodyear organization set out its first rubber plantation in the Philippines. In 1935, after careful pioneering, the sturdiest, high-yield trees from this plantation were brought across to Panama and then to Costa Rica. After endless experiment in crossing high-yielding plants with blight-resistant “wild” seedlings this company has produced a disease-proof, high-yield rubber tree capable of development on this continent. But it is a long-range program which even as recently as last December was described as taking another “fifteen years or more to complete.”

To date the most successful attempt to develop rubber commercially, other than in the Far East, is the 70,000 acre Liberian plantation of the Firestone Company in Africa. In 1928 Harvey Firestone transported sixteen high-yielding strains to what is now the biggest Hevea tree tract outside the Middle East. In

1939 this tract yielded about 5,000 tons. This year it is reasonable to expect 12,000 tons production, which is practically a hundred per cent of the output of that country.

Another rubber source, much in the public eye, is Guayule (pronounced Wy-yu-ley). Guayule is a tough, sagebrushlike plant containing twelve to twenty-two per cent rubber. This shrub grows wild in the high, semi-arid regions of Mexico and California, and has been produced there by the Intercontinental Rubber Company for thirty-five years. The final product is said to look, feel and smell like tree rubber, but is softer and less wear-resistant. Though simple to produce, it costs twelve to fifteen cents a pound compared with five to ten cents a pound for plantation rubber. Too soft to replace tree rubber completely in the tire and inner tube market, it is chiefly used for impregnating the cotton strands in belting, shoes, raincoats. Production has not exceeded 5,000 tons a year. It is expected to rise to 7,200 tons in 1942, part of which is being retained for consumption in Mexico.

The United States Government has passed legislation for the planting of more than 45,000 acres of Guayule shrub, but it will be a minimum of four to five years before any part of this area will come into bearing, even if sufficient seed can be found to cover such a large tract.

Useful Imitations

CHIEF HOPE of a rubber-starved continent is synthetic rubber. There are said to be forty types of synthetic rubber developed to the point of commercial possibility. But none are true synthetics since they imitate, but do not actually duplicate, the molecular structure of natural rubber. As a group these synthetics can equal the natural product in every desirable characteristic. Many of them are far superior to rubber in individual ways. But no single product combines the good points and eliminates the bad ones. As yet, no one has produced the perfect imitation.

The search for perfection, however, has been long and exciting. It began in 1860, twenty years after Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanization. But it took more than fifty years for chemists to realize that the constituents of rubber weren’t half so important as the structural arrangement. When this was realized, synthetic research really began to make headway. Today, synthetic rubber means “a synthetic material possessing the approximate physical properties of natural rubber.” Today’s synthetics cost roughly three times the price of crude rubber, which has been pegged at about twenty-two cents a pound. Large-scale production, financed by the U.S. Government, is expected to cut costs of synthetic production to about twenty-five to thirty cents a pound.

In Europe the source of almost all synthetic rubber is butadiene. This is what chemists call a borderline substance—a gas at room temperature, and a liquid below twenty-four degrees Fahrenheit, or when it is subjected to pressure. It is the chief component of the Buna type or general-purpose synthetics which are

today our only hope in the manufacture of automobile tires and tubes. The name Buna came from Germany in 1927—Bu for butadiene and Na for sodium.

Butadiene can be made from many substances—molasses, grains, potatoes, scrap wood or almost anything of a vegetable nature.

The cheapest and most direct source of butadiene is probably crude petroleum and natural gas. Some years ago Standard Oil of New Jersey exchanged research information with Germany, and prior to the outbreak of war, traded some of its patents in oil technology outright for Buna, acquiring exclusive U.S. manufacturing rights with no cash or future royalties involved. Standard Oil built a small Buna plant and offered to license rubber companies which wanted to manufacture Buna for their own use. Prior to Pearl Harbor one or two companies had been licensed. Since the United States went to war practically all information and resources have been pooled in a continent-wide drive to speed development and manufacture in every possible way. What is happening now is the telescoping of five or ten years work into a scant twelve or eighteen months.

The synthetic, which will be made in the new plants now being built in the United States and Canada is Buna-S—the same type of synthetic which Nazi panzer hordes have been using in their bid for world conquest. Buna-S is made through the buildingup (polymerization) of about three parts of butadiene and one part styrene. (Styrene is a colorless liquid which can be made either from coal or from petroleum.)

In Canada, the butadiene and possibly the synthetic rubber itself will be made at a plant to be erected in Western Ontario. Butadiene is not a direct by-product of crude petroleum, but appears after various processes of distillation and “cracking” of the crude. It does not use a very large percentage of crude supply but may curtail the manufacture of high octane gasoline. The estimated cost of the new plant to be erected in Canada is about $40,000,000 with an annual output of 30,000 to 40,000 tons of synthetic rubber by the end of 1943. Canada is dependent on technique and equipment from the United States, which itself is aiming to produce upward of 400,000 tons of synthetic rubber by 1944 in a parallel program.

The other important group of rubber substitutes is what might be called “special purpose” synthetics. These are products made from a variety of components and actually superior to natural rubber for a variety of specialized uses such as gasoline hose, industrial needs, etc. They are of secondary importance at the present time since seventy-five to eighty per cent of rubber now required for war purposes will go into the manufacture of tires—for which special-purpose synthetics are not adapted.

The first of these special synthetics to be made commercially in the United States was Thiokol. It is a rubberlike substance made by accident in the early twenties during experiments to produce a cheaper

antifreeze. Another and betterknown special - purpose synthetic is du Pont’s Neoprene.

Neoprene has been manufactured in steadily growing volume for nearly nine years and has been compounded into all varieties of rubber products. But at the end of 1940, productive capacity was rated at only 5,500 tons a year. It is made from acetylene gas, has a high chlorine content and is excellent material for coating barrage balloons, because of its superior resistance to age, heat, sunlight and gases.

The story of the development of Neoprene suggests the problems which lie ahead in the development of synthetic rubber for tires. This synthetic went from the laboratory into pilot-plant production and thence into small commercial use in 1932. It was originally called Duprene and had a strong acetylene smell. It shuttled back into the laboratory for more development, then into an improved plant and back into the field for more experience—repeating this sequence over and over so fast in the early years that the plant became obsolete almost as soon as it was erected. In 1937 it had emerged almost odorless and was renamed Neoprene. Production in 1942 is expected to be about 19,000 tons.

Other special-purpose synthetics are Hycar (made bytheHydrocarbon Chemical Co., jointly owned by Phillips Petroleum and B. F. Goodrich), Chemigum (Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.) and Perbunan (Standard Oil Co.). These all belong to the very highly oil-resistant acrylonitrile type of synthetic and are now in sizable commercial production. They are used largely in the manufacture of many parts required in aircraft production.

Synthetics For Tires

AMERICA’S first synthetic tire -h*was placed on the market early in July, 1940, by the Goodrich organization. The result of fifteen years’ research, it cost five dollars more than an ordinary standard casing and was made from a mixture of Goodrich’s own synthetic, “Ameripol” and crude rubber. Though it showed high resistance to heat, ageing and sunlight, and promised to wear as well as natural rubber, therp is still uncertainty as to its ability to stand up under everyday operating conditions.

This is one important reason for doubt concerning synthetic rubber. We are not yet sure what sort of tires it will make and how much crude will be needed to assure that such tires will stand up in battle action. Russian and German use of synthetic rubber is shrouded in secrecy, except that Germany’s Buna-S tires are known to have broken down badly when subjected to very cold weather in the Russian campaign. Russia is reported to be using crude rubber obtained from Kok-Sagyz, a dandelionlike plant of Chinese origin.

So far great difficulty has been encountered in trying to bond the synthetic rubber to the tire fabric— to make the two adhere. The present solution is to apply a first layer of natural rubber to the fabric, then build up the rest of the tire with

synthetic. Rubber authorities are convinced that it will be only a short time until the research chemist can overcome this problem without the use of natural rubber. For instance, experiments now being made indicate that Guayule, with its resin content, may obviate the need for natural rubber in making synthetic tires. By incorporating Guayule with the Buna-S type synthetic, it is hoped to give it the required “tackifying” or adhesive characteristic.

Even if the best synthetic tire should not prove as long-wearing as the natural-rubber tire of today, the experts are not inclined to take this handicap too seriously. What good is a 10,000-mile tire, they point out, when battle casualties may reduce the “life-expectancy” of the vehicle concerned to a quarter or less of that distance?

Supposing we can be sure of good tires made of hundred per cent synthetic rubber and that this rubber will be pouring out of the new factories by 1944, the United Nations will still be hard-pressed to stretch their crude rubber stock pile over the next two years. Conceivably it may be necessary to attempt the impossible, that is, to spread present crude supplies over, say, the next five years in order to keep our tanks, planes, guns and other combatant vehicles on the roll and provide for essential civilian services.

In Canada the armed services have met the rubber crisis with considerable energy. One of the Army’s pets in recent years has been the “run-flat” tire, which even though punctured remains serviceable, and has given a magnificent account of itself in battle. These tires require forty per cent more crude rubber than other models, and the Army has stripped these tires from all vehicles except those which are actually going into action or are stationed at critical defense posts.

Specifications of all army equipment have been completely overhauled to eliminate or reduce the rubber content wherever possible. Almost every nonessential use for rubber has been prohibited, and even consumption for prescribed civilian uses was limited in February to thirty per cent of the average amount so used in the twelve months ending May 31, 1941.

This drastic curtailment in manufacture will not be complete without equally drastic curtailment of the use of all existing forms of rubber. The way in which Canadians husband existing supplies of rubber—especially the tires on their automobiles— will have a vitally important bearing on our ability to maintain essential civilian and war services. Driving for pleasure can no longer be tolerated. Every single tire on this continent must be “budgeted” to spin out its life as long as possible. So must all other rubber products.

Curtailment of provincial speed laws is deemed a matter of the utmost urgency since wear on tires increases roughly as the cube of speed. Cutting all vehicle highway travel to thirty-five miles an hour would add many months to our rubber supply. By driving at low speeds, tires could safely be worn down to the fabric.

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Equally important is a nation-wide attack on overloading of highway transport vehicles.

Already contemplated is a drastic slashing of both passenger and truck movement for the long haul. Since it is impossible, in many areas, to maintain essential war production and essential community services without the short-haul highway and community bus services, and since we must envisage the next five years without any new equipment, the consumption of tire life by pleasure travel or by highway haulage, which could he shifted to railways, is unthinkable.

Unless our ingenuity can save us, the Canadian people and all those who live on this continent will have to be content to “stay home” for

the duration. Already, competent authorities are predicting that twenty-five to forty per cent of all passenger cars on this continent will be withdrawn from the highways by 1943. In view of the facts, this seems no exaggeration.

One hope is the inventive genius of someone who can devise an alternate type of wheel which will carry us •along our modern highways without any rubber at all. The patent offices will doubtless do a land-office business.

At the moment the only sound approach is the realistic one—an utterly devastating realization that there is no more rubber for any civilian purpose so long as war lasts. This is not a “shortage.” It is not a “bottleneck.” It is famine—cruel, inexorable and without any precedent in our continental history.