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Rubber is vital to a modern industrial economy. It is used in tires for motor vehicles, as insulation in electrical systems, as waterproofing, and in countless other ways.
Natural rubber is derived from the latex of the
rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis. The raw rubber is
ground, dissolved in solvents, and mixed with various other
ingredients such as fillers or pigments. Rubber tires
contain carbon black to prevent the buildup of static electricity,
which shortens the life of the tires, interferes with vehicle
radios, and poses a fire risk during refueling.
Rubber trees are large (60 feet) deciduous trees, losing their leaves during the dry season. They take seven years to reach maturity, after which they yield for about 25 years. The trees can be propagated from seed but are normally cloned from high-yield varieties. Rubber trees are ideally suited to cultivation in humid tropical monsoon climates and thrive in the lateritic soils characteristic of tropical rain forests.
Rubber was the only bulk industrial commodity more
readily available to Japan than
the United States
before the war. The rubber tree originated in Brazil, but the British smuggled seeds
to Ceylon and began
establishing plantations there and in Malaya. By 1941, over
three million acres were under cultivation for rubber production.
Large plantations also existed in the Netherlands East
Indies by 1941. These plantations largely drove Brazil
out of the world market. With the capture of these areas in early
1942, the Japanese secured ample rubber for their needs. At
the same time, they denied natural rubber to the Allies.
The seizure of the rubber plantations by Japan was
entirely foreseeable, yet during 1940 and 1941, a time when the
United States government was urging private industry to begin
retooling for defense production, rubber was oddly neglected.
Instead, private industry was left to take the initiative. Some
effort was made to revive the Brazilian rubber industry, but with
a seven-year period for a rubber tree to come into production,
this gave little hope. The Allies turned their efforts instead
towards the manufacture of synthetic rubber from petrochemicals. DuPont had
developed neoprene in 1931; while this had many applications, it
was not suitable for rubber tires. Thiokol and B.F. Goodrich
introduced their own products under much fanfare, but these made
little impact. Meanwhile Jersey Standard prepared to manufacture
Buna, an invention of the German
I.G. Farben firm, under license. Ironically, Jersey Standard had
attracted considerably public criticism for its ties to I.G.
Farben, but the company would take the lead in synthetic rubber
for the U.S. defense buildup.
Buna came in two varieties, Buna-N and Buna-S. Buna-N or nitrile rubber is a polymer of acrylonitrile with butadiene. It is strong and highly resistant to oils, organic solvents, and other chemical agents, but lacks flexibility. Its resistance to chemicals gave it a viable commercial market in 1940, but, like neoprene, it was not suitable for tire manufacture. Buna-S is a polymer of styrene and butadiene that makes excellent tires, lasting 20% to 30% longer than natural rubber tires, but in 1940 it was four times as expensive as natural rubber. Jersey Standard completed a plant for manufacturing Buna-N by the end of 1940 and also began work on an experimental plant to manufacture the key ingredient, butadiene, from petroleum. The company also offered licensing rights to Buna-N to any other company that was willing to experiment with Buna-S. Firestone began manufacturing Buna-S in February 1940 and began work on a $50 million plant for mass production. The synthetic rubber program then stalled, in part because of the Clayton Memorandum of 20 February 1941 which made the completely unrealistic claim that U.S. reserves would last for at least three years in wartime. The tire manufacturers pressed their case, and the Office of Production Management finally awoke to the need. A government that was previously reluctant to consider a $30 million pilot program in 1940 approved a $700 million program in early 1942. U.S. Rubber had broken ground for the first of four pilot plants subsidized by OPM in September 1941, but a great deal of time had been lost.
In spite of efforts to build up a strategic reserve,
the United States had stockpiles of just 533,000 tons of rubber in
1941, barely a year's peacetime consumption, and it was some time
before the new synthetic plants were running at full production.
The resulting severe rubber shortage led to rationing of gasoline throughout the United
States in order to save automobile tires. Existing tire stocks
were made available only to the military and for critical civilian
needs. An effort to collect a million tons of scrap rubber in 1942
was unsuccessful, yielding only 335,000 tons of scrap rubber, much
of it useless for manufacturing tires. The United States
negotiated the purchase of the limited South American production
in July 1942, but this was far short of requirements.
Politics continued to plague the synthetic rubber
program through the summer of 1942. Butadiene could be produced
from both petroleum and from alcohol
produced from corn, although corn-based rubber cost 25 cents per
pound versus 15 cents per pound from petroleum. Agricultural
interests pushed for government funding for corn alcohol anyway,
arguing that the rubber shortage was a serious enough emergency
that every production avenue should be developed. Between March
and June 1942, the government contracted for 526,200 tons of
butadiene from petroleum, 80,000 tons from alcohol (all produced
from petroleum), and 40,000 tons from benzene. Under Senate
pressure, the alcohol fraction was increased to 220,000 tons, and
a bill was passed establishing a top-priority agency to oversee
production of butadiene from agricultural commodities. Nelson,
head of OPM, described this as "probably the most unwise and
unwarranted piece of legislation passed by Congress during the
war" (quoted in Klein 2013) and Roosevelt vetoed the
Fortunately for the Allied cause, the synthetic
rubber effort was ultimately successful. Roosevelt put
Bernard Baruch, who had directed industrial mobilization during
the First World War, in charge of a committee to evaluate the
synthetic rubber program, and Baruch consulted scientists and
engineers who told him that oil was the best source of butadiene.
The tough president of Union Pacific Railroad, William Jeffers,
was put in charge of the program and proved adept at sweeping
aside bureaucratic obstacles. The invention of very high
temperature fluid catalytic cracking in early 1942 multiplied the
yield of butylene, a feedstock for butadiene production. Though
production of synthetic rubber was just 22,434 tons in 1942, by
1943 the United States had fifteen production plants in operation
and production was 231,722 tons. In 1944, the figure increased to
753,111 tons, and the government had 51 synthetic rubber plants in
operation by the time the war ended. However, replacement tires
remained unavailable for nonessential civilian drivers until
nearly the end of the war.
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