Synthetic rubber finds new applications

Rubber on a roll

01 October 2009 15:41  [Source: ICB]

Watch a video clip of LANXESS' World Rubber Day


Synthetic rubber is still finding new innovative applications, 100 years after its invention

THE SYNTHETIC rubber industry is looking forward to another long-lasting, innovative period in its history as it reaches its centenary.

 Rex Features/Gareth JJ Burgess

In a scientific colloquium in Cologne, Germany, on September 12, hosted by synthetic rubber producer LANXESS, major rubber consumers from the tire, automotive and other manufacturing sectors noted new uses and markets for the material in sports, medical technology, and even in the renewable energy sector.

LANXESS declared September 12 the first World Rubber Day, commemorating the first patent for the process of artificial rubber manufacturing granted by Germany's Imperial Patents Office. The process was developed by Fritz Hofmann, chief chemist at Elberfelder Farbenfabriken vorm Friedrich Bayer & Co (Bayer).

In 1909, Bayer offered an incentive of 20,000 gold marks - the equivalent then of $5,000 (€3,382) - to anyone in their company who invented a satisfactory substitute for natural rubber within three years.

"At that time, Bayer created a climate for innovation linked to incentive payments," said LANXESS chairman and CEO Axel Heitmann. LANXESS was formerly Bayer's chemical and polymer business division, which was spun off in 2005.

"Hofmann's successors ensured that more synthetic rubber and its applications came into the market. We know the future of synthetic rubber has only just begun as we build on the versatility and outstanding chemical properties of this material," said Heitmann.

LANXESS generates about 50% of its sales from synthetic rubber. The company's research and development funding rose by 10% in 2008 and would increase by a further 10% this year to €110m ($161m), said Heitmann. In July, LANXESS launched a multilateral collaboration with Bayer Technology Services, the Technical University of Dortmund, the University of Bonn and equipment manufacturer Buss-SMS-Canzler to develop new technology for producing synthetic rubber. The three-year collaboration has total funding of €10m, half of which will be subsidized by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

In May, LANXESS expanded its research and development (R&D) center for high-performance rubbers in Qingdao, China, and initiated a collaboration with Chinese research institutes in Beijing and Shanghai.

The company completed 110 R&D projects last year, said Heitmann, and about 100 projects are in the pipeline.

In the automotive sector, synthetic rubber plays a major role in reducing fuel consumption by improving the rolling resistance of tires, as well as lowering vehicles' weight.

"Synthetic rubber plays a
major role in our efforts
to reduce fuel consumption"

Georg Weiberg, board of management, Daimler Trucks

LANXESS says 85% of its butyl rubbers are consumed in tires. Georg Weiberg, a member of Germany-based Daimler Trucks' board of management, told the colloquium that 5% of vehicle operating costs were from tires.

"Fuel consumption is significantly influenced by tires, and tire synthetic rubber therefore plays a major role in our efforts to reduce fuel consumption," said Weiberg.

Synthetic rubber also helped to reduce noise and vibration, as well as increasing the comfort and quality of Daimler's products, he added.

Heitmann gave examples of newly developed products that helped to improve tire rolling resistance and reduce wear, such as rubber additive Nanoprene, which contains silica, and PBR4003, a special solution styrene-butadiene rubber, launched this year.

LANXESS has also introduced new hydrogenated acrylonitrile-butadiene rubbers for use in vehicles that run on biofuels. The new synthetic rubbers are said to be better equipped against swelling from green fuel because of their high acrylonitrile (ACN) content - up to 50.5%.

The solar, wind and fuel-cell markets also offer potential applications. LANXESS said its Therban and Levapren rubber grades were already being used in photovoltaics and wind-energy applications.

"Innovation for synthetic rubber is far from exhausted," said Heitmann. "We expect growth for synthetic rubber use in renewable energy markets of between 5% and 10%."

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