Research and development keeps the fires of innovation burning. Getting someone to pay for the fuel is the problem.
The difficulty in convincing companies, institutions or government to help fund research in the rubber business-no matter how promising-is apparent in the work of Judit E. Puskas, a University of Akron polymer science professor. She is heading two separate research projects that could be of great value to the rubber industry. One is moving along well, the other awaits major funding.
Puskas last summer got a $390,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a synthetic natural rubber.
The search for an exact synthetic replacement for NR began before World War II. The famous government-sponsored project that resulted in the development of SBR was a direct consequence of fears, eventually realized, that the Southeast Asian rubber-producing regions would be cut off from the Allies. SBR is a substitute, but it isn't NR.
Today the need for a synthetic NR springs from the vulnerability of Hevea to disease; the allergic reaction of some people to the rubber; and the lack of large-scale production of guayule, a home-grown NR source.
Puskas heads a team working on this project, and it has broad support in industry and government. It is science and therefore the end result can't be assured, but the ingredients for a promising outcome are in place.
The other project has more roadblocks.
The value is there-a bio-rubber alternative to silicone rubber-based breast implants. Silicone is the only choice available for this application, and the problem is as the body forms a protective capsule around an implant, the capsule puts pressure on it. Because silicone is a weak elastomer, it can deform or rupture and leak.
The failure of silicone can cause physical problems in some women and was a hot-button issue for many years. The legal and financial ramifications concerning breast implant failures, of course, have been enormous.
Puskas has applied for 10 grants for the project since 2000, has gotten a few and is waiting to hear on others. The Food and Drug Administration lifted a restriction on implants imposed in the 1990s, and the issue has dropped off the public's radar.
So has support for Puskas' project. She notes that breast implant makers that contacted her initially about the work no longer seem willing to invest in an alternative.
Their incentive for R&D funding has evaporated, which makes the scientific pursuit all that much harder.