In July 2021, CNBC News interviewed Katrina Cornish of Ohio State University about the pending supply shortage of natural rubber.
Guest Column: Sounding the alarm on security of rubber chemicals supply
The interview covered the effects of the pandemic, climate change, aggressive bio-threats such as leaf fungus, and even shipping challenges. All of these were summed up into the phrase "a looming rubber apocalypse." Solving the supply issue of natural rubber supply through alternatives to the hevea brasiliensis tree, which was the actual subject in the aforementioned interview, by using TKS or guayule, is only part of the storm that is ahead for our industry. While the context of the interview focused on supply of natural rubber, there is yet another component to this looming apocalypse: supply of rubber chemicals.
Currently, over 40 percent of all the critical rubber chemicals—those used for curing (vulcanizing) the rubber and those used to protect the rubber—are controlled through China's manufacturing dominance. Manufacturing of key chemicals, for example MBTS or dicumyl peroxide, is only done in China.
Imagine having all the raw polymer that you need but not being able to convert it into an actual rubber article suitable for use in application. Imagine not having truck tires to transport our goods or not being able to produce O-rings, seals or gaskets for any number of applications. Imagine the threat to our national security if we were embroiled in a geopolitical situation where the production of these key rubber chemicals were slowed or not allowed to be supplied to us or our allies and we were not able to make rubber.
The risk is real and has happened before. I reference the 1940 Roosevelt initiative creating the Rubber Reserve Co. Rubber was declared as a "strategic and critical material" by the president at that time. With each of us relying on the function of thousands of rubber parts every day to get us from place to place (aerospace and automotive); entertain; provide for health and safety (and defense of our nation); provide for our overall care and comfort, it is strategically more relevant today than ever.
We, as an industry, need to demand that our government apply the same logic to the sourcing of rubber chemicals as they did when they invoked the Defense Production Act in February 2021, aimed at increasing production of rubber gloves in the U.S. It's strange, however, that making these strategically important articles could not have happened without the rubber chemicals needed to transform them into an actual article; they seemed to overlook that part.
We need to get the investments needed to return production of these chemicals to the U.S. Already we are dependent on foreign-produced polymer for our seals in our fighter aircraft and other critical defense items—that doesn't seem to make the news. Some will say that many of these chemicals are produced in Europe. That may be true, but in many cases the feedstocks are still sourced from China and the European Union is currently not looking like a bastion of security. If we, the rubber industry, fail to raise this to the highest level within our government and rekindle this supply segment within the U.S., we are indeed headed for that rubber apocalypse.
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