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 Home > City Resources > Industrial > Rubber Processing

 It all began with Brazil, the country that gave rubber to the world 

The country which introduced rubber to the world was Brazil, and that tree is called Hevea Brasiliensis. Unfortunately, Brazil no longer plays any significant part in the world as far as natural rubber trade is concerned. Everything began with the export of Seeds, from the lower Amazon area of Brazil to London UK by Henry Wickham, a local planter acting for the British Government in 1876.

These seeds were germinated at the Tropical Herbarium in Kew Gardens, London later that year. From there seedlings were exported to present Sri Lanka. In 1877, 22 seedlings were sent from Ceylon to Singapore, where they grew strongly, and the technique of tapping was developed. Prior to this, the trees had to be felled before the latex could be extracted.

During early years of 20th Century, most of the techniques and practices, which were required to establish large plantations had been developed. Bud grafting, that is essentially a cloning technique which ensures that genetically identical trees can be produced in unlimited numbers, became one of the key techniques in rubber plantation. Over the next 40 years or so, the British in Malaysia and the Dutch in Indonesia cleared large areas of rainforest to create rubber plantations. Opportunities of rubber cultivation, seem very bright and as a result, local farmers planted small groves of trees to supplement their own income.

Gradually two types of rubber plantations came into existence in most of the producing countries : the estate plantations and the smallholdings. Smallholdings tend to produce solid rubber while estates are essentially large-scale farms, with professional management. Most latex comes from professionally managed estates.

Though latex is often described as the sap of the Hevea tree, but in reality it is not made from sap latex. Sap is a liquid that runs deeper inside the tree, beneath the cambium. Latex runs in the latex ducts which are in a layer immediately outside the cambium. This highlights the skill of the tapper. If the cambium is cut, then the tree is damaged, because the cambium is where all the growth takes place. Too much damage to the cambium, and the tree stops growing and stops making latex.

All natural rubber originates in the Hevea tree, and it starts its journey when the tree is tapped, which are rarely tapped more often than once every two days. The procedure of tapping begin around the plantation before dawn. At each tree a sharp knife is used to shave off the thinnest possible layer from the intact section of bark. The cut which are made on the trees must be neither too deep, nor too thick. In either cases it will reduce the productive life of the tree. From these cuts, starts the latex flowing, and the tapper leaves, which flow to a little cup underneath the cut. In ordinary circumstances, this latex will normally coagulate into a lump in the bottom of the cup, called 'cup lump.' In case of making latex, the tapper must add a stabilizing agent to the cup. Usually ammonia is used, which prevents the latex from coagulating. The tapper returns a few hours later and collects the stuff in the cup, either cup lump or latex.

If solid rubber is required, the cup lump, together with tree lace (the remnants of the latex flow from the cut down to the cup) and other bits and pieces are collected together and processed. That processing involves quite a lot of heat, which destroys many (but not necessarily all) of the proteins. It ends up as solid rubber. Depending on the method of processing and the final purity of the material, the industry refers to it either as technically specified rubber, TSR, or sometimes sheet rubber. When latex is required--which covers about 10 percent of all NR produced--the material is gathered on the tapper's return journey, poured into containers and delivered to a processing station where it is strained and concentrated. At no stage in the process is the latex heated. This means most of the proteins remain in the latex.

More stabiliser is added and the latex goes into a centrifuge to remove some of the water, and increase the rubber content of the latex. After centrifuging, the material is known as latex concentrate, and contains roughly 60 percent solid rubber and 40 percent other stuff , water, proteins etc. This latex concentrate is what is used in the dipping process when making gloves.


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