If Neoprene were a person, it would be one of those old guys you see chugging along at low speed in a 5K. A wrinkled veteran of racing, many achievements during his career, no speedster anymore, always finishes.
DuPont's powers that be have nothing against old guys, I imagine, but aren't interested in “just finishing the race.” Neoprene has a commodity's growth rate, and that won't cut it for DuPont, which is selling the business to Denka. Selling a business with more historical significance than nearly any synthetic rubber.
History has no cache in the business world, of course, unless it can be used as a marketing tool.
I'm well acquainted with polychloroprene rubber for several reasons, among them: a) I learned about Neoprene's interesting past when I started covering the rubber business; b) I'm obsessed with scuba diving.
Neoprene was the first commercially successful synthetic rubber. A case can be made that its origin goes back as far as 1904, when Father Julius A. Nieuwland wrote his doctoral thesis, “Some Reactions of Acetylene” and began a life-long pursuit of the topic. In 1925 a DuPont scientist listened to a lecture by the Notre Dame University chemical professor about the synthesis of chloroprene from acetylene, and the company funded Nieuwland's further research and put some of its top brains on it, among them Arnold M. Collins and his boss, Wallace Carothers.
On Nov. 7, 1931, the company introduced DuPrene polychloroprene rubber at the ACS Rubber Division meeting in Akron.
It was a big hit. In the ensuing decades, the material's oil and chemical resistance made it the SR of choice in an amazingly diverse range of products, from automotive gaskets, belting and hoses, to fly-fishing waders, to adhesives and Halloween masks. And wetsuits.
The DuPrene name lasted just six years, and then was changed to Neoprene. By design or not, Neoprene became a generic name, equivalent to aspirin, escalator and cellophane.
More advanced polymers pushed Neoprene out of much of its big automotive niche over the years. The material still exhibits its versatility with a wide variety of uses. Which brings me to diving.
You'll find most divers and many surfers stuffed into Neoprene wetsuits, and with good reason. The water between the rubber and the body acts as insulation. In any water colder than your body temperature, you are losing heat, and you'll freeze various body parts if you are in the water without thermal protection.
Fact is, I'm usually not in a wetsuit, as I'm mostly a cold water diver, where drysuits are the protection of choice. I sometimes use Neoprene gloves, and the drysuit I wear has Neoprene seals, which you definitely want to work properly.
Try bathing in 40°F water if you want to know what a failed wrist or neck seal is like. But when I'm in the warmer waters of the world, yes, I'll be in a wetsuit.
Love that Neoprene. Even if DuPont no longer does.
Noga is a contributing editor for RPN and its former editor. He can be reached at [email protected].