Natural vs Synthetic Rubber: Top Differences And Which You Should Choose

Trying to talk about the usefulness of rubber in today’s manufacturing industry is almost futile – pretty much everyone knows just how effective and useful the material is. If you look around you, the importance of rubber pretty much follows you everywhere – from the consumer products you use to the different other tools around your environment. 

All of these have gone on to show that rubber isn’t just a fad – it is very much the present, and for many people, it remains the future. But, as a manufacturer, one of the most important things you need to keep in mind is which type of rubber to use as part of your entire process. And for most people, choosing between natural and synthetic rubber is one of the biggest questions. 

This is why we’re here. In this article, we’ll look into the natural rubber vs synthetic rubber debate to help you better understand which option to choose for your operations. 

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Natural vs Synthetic Rubber: Definitions & Properties

What Is Natural Rubber & What Are Its Properties?  

The natural rubber phenomenon has become especially prominent these days – mostly because manufacturers are looking to draw more into natural sources when checking for raw materials. Either way, natural rubber is pretty much the purest form of the material. It is gotten from the sap of specific plants, with most manufacturers tapping into the Hevea brasiliensis tree to get their fix. 

Essentially, they get the sap, and they process it into making natural rubber. And in turn, this material can be turned into things like natural rubber tires and so on. We’ll look into that manufacturing process in a later section. 

In terms of composition, the major component you can find in natural rubber is polyisoprene. This is a polymer that is gotten from different units of the isoprene monomer. Its chemical structure looks like this: 

C5H8

 

With isoprene forming the basis, some manufacturers can go further to add extra materials like proteins, resins, and organic compounds to their own natural rubber mixes. So, there’s a lot to be combined here in total. 

The Physical Properties Of Natural Rubber 

So with everything that we now know, let’s look into the natural rubber properties – starting with the ones that we can actually see for ourselves:

  • It is Very Elastic: Like every other rubber variant, one of the most prominent advantages of natural rubber comes in the fact that the material does well to stretch from one end to the other. And when you’re done stretching it, the material simply goes back to its original shape. 
  • You Get Optimal Flexibility: Just as well, natural rubber holds its flexibility – even when the temperature has dropped considerably low. 
  • The Strength Rating: Physical strength for natural rubber is quite impressive. Its tensile strength might not necessarily be top notch, but it is still a pretty sturdy material. 
  • It Takes A Massive Abrasion Hold: You can rely on abrasion resistance to be among the many natural rubber properties. If you’re concerned about wear and tear, natural rubber is a solid option to have with you. 
  • No Electricity Passage: Of course, natural rubber’s insulation package also includes holding its own against the entry of electricity. 

Natural Rubber’s Chemical Characteristics

Next on the list of natural rubber properties, let’s look into the material’s chemical properties. Here, we have the following: 

  • It’s Not So Great With Oxidation: You generally want to be careful when it comes to natural rubber and oxidation. Over time, exposure to oxidation causes it to harden and crack, so you want to watch out for it when in the presence of sunlight and air.
  • It Doesn’t Dissolve: Among the natural rubber advantages is that it is insoluble. That said, in the presence of some solvents, it can swell and even soak them in. 
  • The Material Resists Acids & Bases: To be fair, this is true. But, its resistance to these materials is also quite limited. You want to keep an eye out for the environment to know if it’ll be able to hold up. 
  • Heat Affects It Too: Many rubber variants show a susceptibility to heat, and natural rubber is sadly one of those. When temperatures get very elevated, the material runs the risk of softening. 
  • The Biodegradability Benefit: Well, like every other rubber variant, biodegradability is one of the natural rubber properties.

Synthetic Rubber’s Major Properties 

With synthetic rubber, you have a bit of a broad umbrella. Instead of referring to just one rubber option, it instead looks at a family of polymer rubbers that have been engineered to copy natural rubber in some form or the other. 

We all know how it is – people see natural things, and they try to mimic them. In terms of natural vs synthetic rubber, however, there are different arguments. 

To begin with, synthetic rubber comes in different types. And, understanding which type you’re working with will help you to also get a handle on its properties. Here are some of the most notable options available: 

  • Styrene-Butadiene Rubber: This is a material that functions as a copolymer. It is made from combining butadiene and styrene, as its name suggests.  It mostly mimics the properties of natural rubber in tires, operating more in the automotive space. 
  • Polybutadiene Rubber (BR): Next, we have BR rubber. This option usually contains a massive amount of polybutadiene, and it also works like natural rubber in tires and other industrial products. 
  • Polyisoprene Rubber (IR): If there was a synthetic rubber car option that really mimicked the natural rubber properties, it would most likely be IR rubber. In just about any applications where you need the latter, this option will most likely be able to work. 
  • Nitrile Rubber: The material, which essentially combines acrylonitrile and butadiene, works also in automotive operations. 
  • Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer (EPDM): EPDM is a very notable synthetic rubber material. It is so versatile that it has been compared to silicone and other synthetic materials, and its functions are also just as flexible as its properties. 
  • Chloroprene Rubber: Known to some as Neoprene or CR, this material is made from monomers with bases of chloroprene. 

What Are Synthetic Rubbers Made Of? 

Well, at this point, it’s pretty clear that synthetic rubbers are quite varied. So, their compositions will generally depend on the type you’re working with. 

Generally, though, synthetic rubbers contain different monomers, which have been joined together through the polymerization process. For instance, NR Rubber combines acrylonitrile and butadiene, while SBR combines butadiene and styrene. So, when talking about the composition of synthetic rubbers, you also need to be aware of their properties in general. 

The Physical Properties Of Synthetic Rubber 

Now, let’s look at what makes synthetic rubber especially unique – starting with the physical synthetic rubber properties:

The Elastic and Flexible Metrics: As you would expect of any rubber variant, the synthetic rubber properties include a considerable amount of flexibility and elastic. They take in consideration stress, and when you loosen them up, they can easily return to their original shape. 

A Strong, Sturdy Material: Another important mention among the advantage of synthetic rubber is that the material is strong and can withstand a considerable amount of abrasion. These metrics tend to change based on the grade you’re working with, but synthetic rubber is pretty high on both fronts. 

It’s Stable Across A Broad Temperature Range: You might need to add a little bit more engineering to make these metrics visible, but synthetic rubber tends to withstand a broad range of temperatures. And as you can imagine, this makes artificial rubber useful for different functions. 

Synthetic Rubber’s Chemical Properties

In terms of the chemical properties, there are only a few things that make this rubber variant stand out. They include: 

  • How They React To Chemicals: As you would imagine, the chemical resistance peg will depend on the type of artificial rubber you’re dealing with. You can easily make a choice based on the chemical resistance level you want.
  • Oxidation Repellence: You can also engineer synthetic rubber to push back on degradation caused by oxidation. Hint: This is one of the advantages of synthetic rubber over its natural counterpart. 
  • Chemical Stability: While this one also depends on the particular type of artificial rubber and what you want to use it for, it’s pretty high across the board. 

Natural vs Synthetic Rubber: How They Are Made

Now that we have a proper introduction to the two, let’s look into the manufacturing processes for them. You might be asking, “How is synthetic rubber produced? How do you go about making natural rubber? Let’s break down everything you need to know: 

How Natural Rubber Is Made 

First, Harvest The Sap

As we said earlier, natural rubber is obtained from the sap of a specific plant. The sap is gotten through regular tapping – mostly done by local farmers. Once it flows out, the sap is collected and stored. 

Acid Treatments Speed Up The Reaction

Next, the latex is treated with a special acid to help it coagulate. Thanks to this process, you have different rubber particles that are essentially allowed to float in the liquid. 

Form Your Sheets

Now, you can roll the coagulated latex into thin, accommodatable sheets. With exposure to air, the sheets are dried to keep them free of any microbes that might affect their properties – while also improving their specific formulations. 

You Can Smoke It If You Want

Generally, this process is quite optional. But, the entire point of smoking the sap is to improve its color and help it to last long. All you have to do is expose the sheets to smoke that comes from burning wood and other materials, and you’re good to go.

Process The Sheets

Once the sheets are properly dried, you can use milling machines to process them and create different forms and grades. In most cases, you either get technically specified rubber (TSR) or ribbed smoked sheets (RSS). 

From there, you can create the rubber product as you see fit.

The Production Breakdown For Synthetic Rubber 

So how do you go about making synthetic natural rubber, and what do you need to know about the process?  

Produce The Monomer 

The first step in making synthetic rubber is to synthesize the monomer that will be used to produce it. For this step, you need to consider the polymer you want to create and the monomer – or monomers, as the case may be – that will be needed to make it.  

Polymerize What You Have 

From there, feel free to polymerize the monomers. This can be done using different methods – bulk polymerization, solution polymerization, etc. But, at the end of the day, the focus should be the production of lengthy polymer chains.

Add Any Extras

You can now add any additional products like initiators and catalysts that will help to improve the polymerization reaction. 

Let The Material Coagulate

With all of your materials set, let the entire mixture coagulate. This helps you to clear the polymer and separate it from your liquid altogether. The process can take two major forms – adding a coagulant or straight-up heating the mixture.

Let It Dry and go On To Process

Finally, you can begin to dry the coagulated material and process it into different forms – a sheet, a pellet, etc. If you need to get additional compounding agents like plasticizers and fillers, then feel free to add those too. 

Once all of this is done, you can use your synthetic rubber to make different products across the board. 

Natural vs Synthetic Rubber: Which Is More Expensive?

When it comes to price, you can imagine that there is a lot to be considered here. The natural vs synthetic rubber debate comes down to a lot of things, and as you can imagine, cost plays a major part in that. So, which option generally provides a better comparative cost advantage overall? 

In most cases, natural rubber is considered to be more expensive than synthetic rubber. When factoring the pros and cons of synthetic rubber, this definitely counts as a pro. 

Now, this dynamic is mostly because the process of making natural rubber will involve tapping trees, harvestingthe sap, and other processing steps. All of this can take up a lot of labor, and as you can imagine, it will only get more expensive. And when you consider the effects of things like weather conditions and even geopolitical factors, the costs really just keep going up.

As for synthetic rubber, its cost profile mostly gets influenced by things like the petrochemicals that go into making it in the first place. As long as these petrochemicals are in good supply and the market conditions are favorable – which they mostly are – you should be fine. Of course, this is one of the advantages of synthetic rubber

Of course, different types of synthetic rubbers tend to have their own cost profiles overall. But, when you take a holistic approach, natural rubber actually tends to be more expensive than the synthetic option.

The Environmental Impact Of Natural vs Synthetic Rubber

If you take a look at every manufacturer today, you’d find that every one of them is looking to optimize their processes to cater to the environment. Everyone wants to make sure that their operations have as little an effect on the environment as possible, and this factors a great deal into their choice of materials. 

So, when comparing synthetic rubber vs natural rubber, you might also be interested in understanding how they affect the environment in general. 

Natural Rubber’s Environmental Impact 

The Process Of Harvesting & Cultivating 

To begin with, natural rubber tends to have an impact thanks to the fact that you have to cultivate and harvest the rubber trees. The process erodes land, consumes water, and also could impact general biodiversity. 

An Energy-Intensive Process

We should also mention as part of the natural rubber vs synthetic rubber comparison that processing natural rubber is very energy-intensive. With processes like drying and coagulation, there’s just so much energy involved, 

The Material Itself Is Biodegradable

That said, the natural rubber material itself easily breaks down over time. So, the long-term environmental impact isn’t so considerable. 

What About Synthetic Rubber?

The Petrochemical Element 

When making synthetic rubber, you’ll need to use a lot of petrochemicals. These materials are gotten from natural gas or crude oil, and the process of extracting and processing them will surely have impacts on the environment. 

Overall Energy Consumption 

When you consider the fact that synthetic rubber needs to be polymerized, you will find that the process can also soak up a lot of energy. 

The Involvement Of Chemical Extras

When synthetic rubbers are to be made, there is a need to throw in some chemical additives. If mismanaged, these additives can also have significant effects on the environment. 

They Can’t Be Recycled 

To be fair, both materials can be recycled. But, there’s an extent to which this can be done. Artificial rubbers work mostly for tires, and the rates of recycling these materials isn’t necessarily high. 

At the end of the day, both materials have comparable effects on the environment. And when you’re considering how both affect the environment, there isn’t much of a clear winner here.  

How Natural & Synthetic Rubber Are Used 

When it comes to functionality, it should come as no surprise that you don’t have much of a line of distinction here. At the end of the day, artificial rubber was really created to essentially mimic the properties of natural rubber. As a result, much of the functions that the latter are used for can be performed by the former too. 

So, what are they both used for? 

Making Tires 

Easily the biggest function for both materials is in the automotive sector. Particularly, both are used to make tires. Natural rubber tires and those made of synthetic rubber are quite similar, and they both lend the same properties of wear resistance to automotive functionalities. 

Other Vehicle Components 

Next, we have both materials being used to make different other automotive components. From suspension bushings to gaskets and seals and more,  the potentials are truly endless. 

Industrial Applications 

For this set, there is a bit of a distinction. When it comes to natural rubber, you have a material that works in making things like hoses and seals for industrial machines. On the other hand, synthetic rubber mostly works in making conveyor belts and power transmission tools that optimize the functionality of industrial machines. 

Making Shoes & Footwear

Both materials also shine when you need a footwear option. For natural rubber, its use in footwear applications is quite extensive. But, when it comes to synthetic rubber, you might need to be a bit more specific as some grades might not be ideal for footwear applications. 

Other Consumer Goods

It’s also possible to see both materials being used to make additional consumer goods – gloves, sporting equipment, balloons, you name it. 

Natural vs Synthetic Rubber: How Do You Choose?

So, we’ve come down to it – how do you know which material to choose when it comes to synthetic and natural rubber? Are there any specific factors to keep in mind? Well, yes there are – generally, you want to keep a handle on a few of these factors as you decide in the long run: 

What Do You Need? 

Before even choosing anything, you have to consider your general application requirements. Think about the chemicals that the rubber will be exposed to, as well as things like the temperature range that it will need to overcome. 

At the same time, physical properties like flexibility and elasticity also tend to come into play here. And by understanding a breakdown of your needs, it becomes easier to make a decision on which material to choose. 

Think About Your Budget

You need to consider your available spending too. How much will your project cost? What can you afford? Natural rubber might be more expensive, but the benefits you get from it just might outweigh those of synthetic rubber for your specific application requirements. 

The Environmental Question

We already pointed out that both materials have a considerable impact on the environment. However, factors like biodegradability and more can also impact your decision to ensure that you’re catering to the environment. 

Maintain Compliance With The Law

Remember that laws tend to police different manufacturing processes and the use of specific materials. So, ensure that whatever you choose is in proper compliance with the laws. 

How Long Will It Last? 

One of the worst things that could happen is having to go over material changes time and again just because your chosen option isn’t long-lasting. So, ensure that durability plays a key factor in your overall decision. 

Conclusion

Choosing between these two materials is challenging – mostly because you can find so many parallels to draw in the synthetic rubber vs natural rubber debate. But, it is also important to examine what you need and find which option fits into that. Once you do, the rest becomes considerably easier. 

With our guide, you can easily do this. And if you need any more help, rest assured that we at Legenday will be more than happy to help you out.

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