This edition of the Wacky World of Rubber blog isn't so much wacky as it is educational. It is the story of William J. Sparks and Robert M. Thomas, the ExxonMobil scientists for whom the ACS Rubber Division gives out an award each year during the Science & Technology Awards luncheon at its spring technical meeting.
The purpose the Sparks-Thomas Award is to perpetuate the memory of the two chemists who developed butyl rubber. Established in 1986 and supported by ExxonMobil Chemical, it is aimed at "recognizing and encouraging outstanding scientific contributions and innovations in the field of elastomers by younger scientists, technologists and engineers."
It occurred to me that I had reported on these award winners annually without knowing the full story behind the two men for whom the award was named. Many of you undoubtedly may know the story, but for those who don't, the next time you read about the winners of this honor, now you will know the back story.
Sparks and Thomas were relatively early in their careers when in 1937 they co-invented poly-isobutylene-coisoprene, which is commonly known as butyl rubber. They were conducting research at Standard Oil Co.'s (later re-named ExxonMobil) laboratory in Linden, N.J., on another company product, Vistanex. They mixed it in a reactor and added a small amount of butadiene to create the first batch of butyl rubber.
For the invention, they were granted U.S. Patent No. 2,356,128.
According to ExxonMobil, the new product created a nearly impermeable barrier, was flexible while retaining its shape and dampened vibration. Those characteristics made butyl rubber particularly useful for tires, which needed to hold air, flex when rolling over bumps and be able to isolate road vibrations.
The invention took off during World War II, when Standard Oil built and operated the first commercial butyl rubber factory in cooperation with the U.S. government as part of the Synthetic Rubber Program to accelerate the development and production of SR to support the war effort.
ExxonMobil said the invention of Sparks and Thomas has enabled it to be the global leader in butyl rubber for the last eight decades. Besides its use in tires, butyl rubber also has applications for motor mounts, adhesives and sealants, tank and pond liners, protective gloves, bladders for sports balls and even a food-safe version for chewing gum.