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Neoprene vs. Natural Rubber

Nov. 27, 2023
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Neoprene vs. Natural Rubber

Neoprene and natural rubber are two common materials used to make different components. Finding the right material for the job is essential for maximizing the life span, durability and efficiency of each part. If you want to ensure your parts hold up to wear and tear, you’ll need to know the difference between neoprene and rubber.

Both neoprene and natural rubber have their own unique attributes that make them work for different jobs. After understanding what each material is and how it’s made, you’ll be able to match your needs with the best material. Let’s compare these materials to help you select the suitable medium for your operation.

Neoprene Overview

Neoprene, or polychloroprene, is a synthetic rubber designed to mimic and enhance the qualities of natural rubber. Chloroprene is polymerized to make neoprene and comes in soft and hard varieties. This process makes neoprene highly resistant to water, temperature shifts, solvents and oil — its durability and resistance make it stand apart from other materials. Additionally, neoprene is soft and flexible making it the preferred material for packaging, medical and safety industries.

One of the most well-known uses for neoprene is wetsuits. Since neoprene is comfortable to wear and is highly weather and pressure-resistant, it’s ideal for diving purposes. Neoprene is also used as an electrical insulator in corrosion-resistant coatings. Its durability and flexibility make it ideal for medical use and in materials that see lots of wear in industrial and automotive uses.

Natural Rubber Overview

Rubber is a versatile material found in hundreds of plants. The main source of natural rubber comes from rubber trees. Liquid sap is extracted from the trees and then mixed with ammonia and acid. Then, all remaining water is extracted. The extraction process allows the rubber to solidify into layers that are then processed and turned into various rubber and rubber products.

Natural rubber goes through a process called vulcanization to make it durable. Vulcanization involves heat-treating the rubber, which forms extra bonds in its molecules. The strengthened rubber is then treated and turned into various products. Natural rubber became harder to get, and with the invention of synthetic rubbers, it was used in fewer industrial applications. Both natural rubber and neoprene are excellent electrical insulators — both materials help prevent currents from traveling beyond their surfaces.


Natural Rubber

Factors to Consider Before Buying Neoprene vs. Natural Rubber

If you’re looking for the right rubber products for your business, you’ll want to consider several factors. Neoprene and natural rubber have a few differences that will affect the material you select. Let’s look at three significant factors that will affect the type of rubber you choose.

 

Temperature Ratings

Natural rubber has a much lower temperature rating than neoprene. If you’re looking for a material that handles high heat well, neoprene is your best option. Additionally, neoprene has improved self-extinguishing and flame-retardant qualities. Natural rubber won’t hold up as well to the high heat conditions and is prone to melting in these situations.

Durability

Natural and synthetic rubber both have high durability. Natural rubber is extremely tough, making it excellent for strenuous uses. Once treated, it’s highly resistant to tearing and abrasion. Additionally, natural rubber has a high tensile strength, which makes it suitable for shock absorption and other regular contact uses.

Neoprene is not as durable as natural rubber when it comes to toughness. It has a similar tear resistance, high tensile strength and good elongation abilities when compared to natural rubber. For heavy-use applications, both neoprene and rubber will perform well.

While both materials are durable, neoprene is much more efficient for sealing applications. Its flex cracking resistance and high resilience makes it the superior option for rubber gaskets. Neoprene will withstand highly abrasive conditions much longer than natural rubber and many other materials.

Material Resistances

After finding inadequacies in natural rubber and experiencing a rubber shortage, neoprene was invented to make up for some of natural rubber’s shortcomings. Natural rubber fails or weakens under certain light, temperature, chemical and oil-related conditions. Neoprene is used in situations where natural rubber cannot work.

Neoprene maintains its structure and strength even when encountering oil and petroleum products. Neoprene parts are also resistant to wear and aging, even when exposed to aging factors like ozone and sunlight. It’s capable of withstanding immense pressure and strain, which is why it’s used in wetsuits and medical gloves.

Cost

While material ability has a significant impact on the type of rubber you choose, the cost is often a critical factor for many projects. The improved durability, temperature resistance and material-resistances of neoprene make it much more expensive than other rubbers. The manufacturing process and high strength of neoprene will increase the cost of any project you use it for. However, in return, you receive a rubber that can better handle extreme conditions with ease.

Neoprene vs. Latex

Neoprene is a synthetic rubber. Latex is found naturally in rubber, but it can be created synthetically as well. The term “latex” refers to any mixture of polymer microparticles in water. The milky white latex liquid is harvested and turned into natural or synthetic rubber products, including latex gloves and clothing. The term “latex” often refers to this unprocessed liquid or non-vulcanized — non-heat-treated — rubber. Neoprene is a synthetic, treated rubber.

Neoprene vs. Silicone

Silicone is a polymer made from siloxane. Silicone rubbers, like neoprene, are also highly resistant to extreme temperatures and environments. Its resistance makes silicone popular for cooking equipment, medical devices and more. While silicone is temperature-resistant like neoprene, it’s not able to stand up to oils, petroleum products and other chemicals.

Both silicone and neoprene hold up well against sunlight and aging, making them good options for parts exposed to heavy wear. However, silicone is not as tear-resistant as neoprene. Neoprene has high tensile strength and abrasion — it’s better at flexing and handling rough contact. Silicone can be a lower-cost alternative to neoprene as it also has good tensile strength, as long as the material isn’t needed in abrasive conditions.

Request a Quote From American Micro Industries

 

For decades, American Micro Industries has delivered high-quality, made-to-order parts for military, electronic, defense, aerospace, technology and marine industries across the country. With a customer-oriented, efficiency-focused production, we can provide your business with the parts you need when you need them. Our processes adhere to the strictest quality standards, ensuring your components are made to the specifications you want. From small fabricated parts to electrical insulators, we can manufacture your unique pieces.

If you’re interested in ordering a custom component, contact us online to request your free quote today. We have in-house manufacturing capabilities, in-stock components and bulk options to help you meet your project needs.

Material Guide: What Is Rubber? And Is It Sustainable?

Humans have been using rubber for more than 1000 years, but it’s only in the last few years that we’ve started seeing more of the squeaky material in fashion, from the catwalk to our wardrobes.

Gone are the days when rubber—or latex—was only associated with fetish clubs and underground cultures. Today, more and more designers are incorporating the material into their collections, like in Kourtney and Kim Kardashian’s Balmain latex suit, or more recently in Bottega Venetta’s Rubber Flash Mule, which is said to be an “elevated take on fashion’s favourite ‘ugly’ shoe: the rubber clog.” Rubber rain boots are even set to be one of the trendiest boots this winter, with Lyst announcing that searches for rubber shoes are up 23% since April.

But what do we know about rubber as a fashion material? What is rubber exactly? How is it made? And most importantly: is it sustainable? Today we give you the lowdown on this quirky material.

What is rubber?

When you think about rubber, you probably have in mind erasers, tyres, elastic bands, rain boots, or those horrible swimming caps, but what is it exactly, and where does it come from?

Rubber is a strong, elasticky and super stretchy material that can either be natural or synthetic. It can be soft or hard, and this versatility means it can be used in a wide variety of items.

Natural rubber is made using latex, the runny, milky white sap that oozes from certain plants and trees when you cut into them. Today, most of the natural rubber used in the world comes from the latex of the Hevea brasiliensis, also known as the rubber tree.

Because we can’t produce enough natural rubber to meet our needs, we also make synthetic rubber, which is made—as you might have already guessed—with chemicals. The most well-known synthetic rubbers are neoprene (the material used in most wetsuits) and emulsion styrene-butadiene rubber (E-SBR), used for making tyres.

It’s said that over 1000 years ago, Native Americans living in Central and South America were making waterproof clothes and shoes using the latex from rubber trees. Still, it’s only in the 1830s, when Charles Goodyear accidentally discovered how to make rubber stronger, that it became a commercial commodity.

 

How is rubber made?

Ok, so now we know rubber comes from trees or mixing chemicals, but what does that look like, exactly?

Natural rubber starts with rubber tapping, which involves making a cut into the tree bark and collecting the sap as it drips out. The collected latex is filtered, washed, and mixed with acids to make the rubber particles stick together.

For synthetic rubber, the process usually starts with mixing chemicals. More precisely, it starts with the refining of oil, coal, or other hydrocarbons, during which naphtha is produced. The naphtha is then collected before being combined with natural gas to produce monomers such as neoprene or styrene-butadiene, which we talked about earlier. These monomers go through another process that results in a chain of polymers and creates that rubbery substance.

The natural and synthetic mixtures are then pressed into slabs and dried before being made softer through a process called mastication, mixed with chemicals to improve their properties, squashed, and squeezed. Finally, the rubber is cooked with sulphur and vulcanised (the method discovered by Charles Goodyear) to about 140°C (280°F). The rubber is then ready to use for a multitude of applications.

How is rubber used in fashion?

It was in the early 1800s that scientists started exploring rubber as a clothing material. In 1818, James Syme tried using rubber-coated cloth to make raincoats, but in 1823, Charles Macintosh refined (and patented!) Syme’s technique by using Goodyear’s vulcanisation process. He has been known ever since as the inventor of the rubberised waterproof coat, aka “Mackintoshes”. But—as you might imagine—rubber is not an easy material to work with and sew, so designs were minimal.

Today, rubber is seen as an edgy and cool material, worn by celebrities like Kim Kardashian or Lady Gaga when she met Elizabeth II wearing a stunning red latex dress (Lady Gaga, not the Queen!). But rubber is also super practical, and its waterproof properties make it an excellent material for different uses, from surf wetsuits to clogs, sneaker soles, and simple rain boots.

Is rubber ethical and sustainable?

As we mentioned, one type of rubber comes from trees, so it’s easy to think that this natural material is sustainable, ethical, eco-friendly, and overall good for the Planet, People, and Animals. But in reality, even natural rubber production is far from perfect, and it does pose some threat to the Earth and its inhabitants. Let’s take a look.

Impact on the planet

While rubber trees are native to rainforests in the Amazon region of South America, the majority of production has moved, and today around 90% of natural rubber is produced in Asia due to several plant diseases. This move is creating issues:

The first is deforestation, as tropical forests are cleared for rubber plantations to meet the growing demand. It’s said that from the moment rubber production started speeding up in the 2000s to 2012, more than 1 million hectares of non-traditional rubber areas in Southeast Asia were lost to rubber plantations. This threatened biodiversity in one of the world’s most species-rich regions.

Plus, even in Asia, rubber trees are not immune to pests, diseases, and the damages that come with it, meaning pesticides and herbicides are often used to protect the production and ensure its profitability. As we now know, pesticides and herbicides are very potent and can contaminate soil, water, vegetation, animals, insects … Long story short, they’re bad news for all living things, including us humans.

And that’s just natural rubber. Synthetic rubber poses threats of its own. The main one is that it’s usually made from crude oil, which is non-renewable, non-biodegradable, and releases harmful chemicals into the environment. No, thank you.

If that wasn’t enough, even natural rubber items are usually not made from natural rubber alone. The rubber is generally mixed with other (chemical) components to make the items more durable or resistant. Even the simple vulcanisation process (remember, mixing rubber with sulphur and then heating it) early on in rubber production renders it non-biodegradable.

Impact on people

Yes, rubber grows on trees, but you still need people to tend to the trees and work throughout the production process.

Thailand is one of the biggest rubber exporters, and many of the 2 million rubber farmers in the country are migrant labourers from poorer neighbouring countries, earning as little as US$6 a day.

More recently, there have also been reports of clashes between indigenous people and local communities, and rubber companies, because of land grabs and poor working conditions.

Plus, like many industries globally, the natural rubber industry took a hit from the COVID-19 crisis. As the world stopped, many smaller producers struggled to make a living, and some recently implemented sustainability initiatives were paused.

Unfortunately, the issues in the rubber industry are not as well-known as the ones in soy or palm oil production. According to WWF, that’s one reason why rubber production is “fraught with issues, including corruption, land grabs, human and labour rights violations, illegal logging, and deforestation”. This also means the rubber industry is less regulated.

Moving towards a sustainable rubber industry

But there’s some good news. To start with, rubber trees now growing on previously cleared land with low conservation value can help to capture carbon emissions and reduce erosion.

Rubber production also provides jobs and livelihood for millions of workers. And when rubber trees stop producing latex, the wood can be reused, providing income in different industries.

Luckily, big organisations are spearheading a sustainable rubber supply chain that positively impacts the environment and people, including WWF’s Sustainable Business Programme, which is currently working with Myanmar’s Department of Agriculture.

And in October 2018, the independent Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPNSR) was set up to help improve the impact of the natural rubber industry.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has also developed a position statement for all companies that wish to source sustainable natural rubber, helping improve the social and environmental management of natural rubber plantations worldwide. Brands such as Patagonia and Allbirds have signed FSC’s statement.

What about recycled rubber?

Recycled materials are gaining traction, and we see more and more brands using recycled rubber. Used tyres are one of the most recycled rubber materials, with the United States alone recycling an estimated 250 million tyres annually.

Like most recycled materials, recycling rubber reduces the need to harvest new rubber, reduces the risks associated with natural rubber production, AND uses less energy than creating new synthetic rubber.

Overall, new rubber, even when natural, isn’t the most sustainable or ethical material, but we are seeing some progress. If you’re interested in buying an item that contains rubber, we recommend checking where the material comes from and if it is fairly and sustainably sourced. Recycled rubber is also an excellent, more sustainable option.

Once your item has reached the end of its life, check with your local waste processing facilities to see if they will accept it for further recycling.

Brands using recycled rubber

A Quick Guide to the Different Types of Rubber Elastomers

While most people tend to think of natural rubber, there are several different types of rubber material, including synthetic rubber, styrene-butadiene rubber, silicone rubber, nitrile rubber, and more. Each type of rubber offers unique characteristics that can be utilized to enhance your product or application.

The actual characteristics and properties the synthetic rubber material adopts will greatly depend on the chemicals used in production. These synthetic rubber characteristics come directly from the chemicals used.

As a result, different synthetic rubber and natural rubber types can range from being as hard as softball or soft as a pillow. Because of this, it’s vital you choose the best types of natural rubber or synthetic rubbers to bolster the performance of your product or application.

Since no one expects you to understand all of the characteristics and nuances between synthetic rubber and natural rubber, the custom manufacturing team at Frank Lowe is here to help. Since 1955, we’ve helped manufacturers and business owners explore, pursue and create better products and solutions with our range of natural rubber and synthetic rubbers.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the most common types of synthetic rubbers and rubber materials we die cut and fabricate at Frank Lowe.

Natural Rubbers

Natural rubber is also known as gum rubber or India. This material is derived from the milky substance found in the Hevea Brasiliensis tree (rubber trees). Natural rubber offers a vast range of key characteristics, such as excellent abrasion resistance, high and low-temperature resistance, great tensile strength, and resilience.

Because of the extreme temperature resistance of natural rubber (high and low-temperature properties), it's often used in insulation, gloves, and tires for the automotive industry. Compared to other rubbers, natural rubber is one of the most flexible types, which makes it suitable for rubber bands. 

It boasts good chemical properties and chemical resistance to some chemicals. However, natural rubber does have poor fuel resistance and may be vulnerable to certain mineral oils and non-polar organic solvents.

Neoprene Rubber Elastomer

Neoprene or Chloroprene Rubber was one of the first oil-resistant synthetic rubbers. This type of rubber is moderately resistant to synthetic lubricants, ozone, oxygen, UV, and petroleum. 

It’s classified as a general-purpose elastomer that has good resistance to abrasions, excellent resilience, good tensile strength, and a low compression set. These characteristics make neoprene rubber a preferable solution for o rings.

This elastic material also offers tear-resistance and flex-cracking-resistant qualities. These qualities make neoprene ideal for sealing applications where other types of rubber wouldn’t suffice. In addition, neoprene rubber can be compounded to have flame resistance physical properties and good tensile strength

Silicone Types of Rubber Elastomer

Silicone rubber is a popular synthetic rubber that boasts a range of admirable attributes and physical properties. Silicone rubber materials retain good elastomeric properties at both high and low temperatures. It’s a highly customizable product that can be formulated to meet a range of different specifications.

Silicone boasts excellent abrasion resistance, heat aging properties, ozone resistance, and weathering resistance. However, this material has moderate physical properties to poor resistance to silicone fluids and solvents. It's also not as fuel resistant as comparable rubbers. 


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