For an industry that's supposed to be mature and, well, not the most exciting game in town, there certainly have been a number of breakthroughs announced in recent weeks.
The technical advancements range from a couple of different projects focusing on isoprene rubber, to one on liquid farnesene rubber, and another on a new family of elastomers for use in severe oil and gas applications.
And like they say in those pervasive TV commercials: "But wait, there's more." Another breakthrough was for a transparent thermoplastic elastomer armor, and the final one was for a thermally conductive rubber material.
The contributors represented a varied lot. Three tire companies, along with a sealing device maker, a materials firm, two universities and even the U.S. Navy.
Both isoprene rubber projects involved furthering the goal of making commercial elastomers from sustainable sources.
The University of Minnesota's researchers, in conjunction with the Center for Sustainable Polymers, said its new technology produces isoprene from trees, grasses and corn. They claimed tires made with this isoprene would be identical to existing tires. The university has applied for a patent and plans to license the technology.
Not to be outdone, Bridgestone said its breakthrough could yield a synthetic IR that would have performance characteristics surpassing that of natural rubber. They see the development as one step toward its goal to source all raw materials used in its tires from sustainable materials by 2050.
Sumitomo said it developed a winter tire made with a liquid farnesene rubber that Kuraray supplied using a new biologically derived diene monomer from Amyris. Kuraray said using the LFR as a performance enhancing additive improves the tire's ice grip performance. Amyris produces farnesene through fermentation of sugar cane.
The transparent TPE armor comes from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, which is looking for licensees to make the patented product. The NRL claimed the lightweight armor reduces the weight of most bullet-resistant glass while not compromising superior ballistic properties.
The award for most memorable name among these new technologies goes to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, which dubbed its thermally conductive rubber material for producing soft, stretchable machines and electronics as "thubber rubber." The school also is looking for licensees on the patent-pending technology after publishing its results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Finally, James Walker Sealing Devices shows that despite the tough times experienced by players in the oil and gas market in recent years, R&D work continues. The firm is set to unveil its Vermilion family of elastomers for use in the sector, saying the materials reach performance standards not thought possible five to 10 years ago.
With all this activity, it's enough to make you excited to see what new barriers the R&D staffs in the rubber industry will have broken five years from now.