Current Issue

Column: Here are some cool things about rubber

Comments Email

Rubber is an indispensable material that revolutionized the world, is as commonplace as, well, tires, and will continue to be vital to humankind.

At times, it can be pretty cool, too.

There certainly are many, many, MANY uses of rubber that fall into the category of cool, as far as I'm concerned. Earthquake bearing pads long ago caught my fancy, as did single-ply rubber roofing and drug-eluting polymers used in stents. I have always been partial to anything made out of recycled rubber. Automotive rubber parts and anything high-tech are aces in my book.

I won't go so far as to call tires sexy, as a compatriot at sister publication Tire Business did once in print. We all had a lot of fun with that. But I will admit, tires are highly engineered products that hold the vehicle to the road yet not so much as to keep your car from racing down the highway. Yeah, that's cool.

Don't get me started on various rubbers, either. Or the machinery to make something out of them. Amazing stuff.

Speaking of amazing stuff, the latest item involving rubber that caught my attention is the creation of wearable rubber bands that conduct electricity. Yes, the lowly rubber band—although any kid who shot a rubber band at a classmate or wears a rubber band bracelet wouldn't call them lowly—someday may be monitoring blood pressure and respiration, or warning of a sleep apnea episode.

Rubber's ability not to conduct electric current has been a welcome characteristic. Of course, scientists long have worked to reverse that trait, which would open many opportunities. What caught my attention is word that scientists at universities in England and Ireland have come up with a method of creating wearable health sensors, using rubber bands.

The secret, apparently, is adding graphene to the rubber bands. Graphene was produced by scientists just a decade ago—and earned Nobel Prizes for two University of Manchester scientists—and is a one-atom thick layer of graphite. It is very strong and efficient in conducting electricity and heat.

Tests by scientists at the University of Surrey and Trinity College showed that current flowing through graphene-infused rubber bands was strongly affected if the band was stretched. So if you attach that rubber band to clothing, breath and pulse can be measured.

Is that cool or what? We could be listening to our shirt to find out that our blood pressure is running high. Or maybe your pajamas will tell you to wake up and start breathing.  

One of the selling points of the project is that rubber bands are not high-end products. They are readily available and relatively inexpensive.

Like anything coming out of a lab, monitors based on graphene-infused rubber bands won't be hitting the market tomorrow. However, scientists are encouraged by the possibility.

Me too. Because it's cool.  

Noga is a contributing editor to RPN and its former editor. He can be reached at