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What’s the Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Rubber for Tires?

Ever wonder where rubber comes from? Or what other ingredients are used in the rubber compound to help your tires stick to the road? From the plants of Asia to the petroleum factories of North America, natural and synthetic rubber have long been harnessed to keep our vehicles rolling.

The history of rubber

Long before rubber was used in ultra-rugged mud tires or sleek performance tires, it was used for sport. In fact, Christopher Columbus watched the people of Central and South America, who discovered rubber, use a rubber ball in a game that was a cross between basketball and football.

On its own, though, rubber was sticky in the heat and froze in the cold—too fickle a material for much more than game balls.

Three hundreds years later, a mixture of rubber, white lead and sulphur was accidentally dropped on a hot stove. The result? A rubber that stretched but always returned to shape, that never froze nor melted. A rubber that would be perfect for automobiles (as well as rainboots and erasers).

Natural rubber

The rubber tree grows deep in the hot, damp forests of Southeast Asia, Africa and South America—the world’s ‘Rubber Belt.’ When these trees, grown on rubber plantations, mature, an incision is made in the trunk of the tree to collect the latex sap and let the tree live on.

While the durability and grip of natural rubber makes it a perfect ingredient for the compound of tires, the industry needed a way to produce rubber in other locations and make enough for the masses who drive around the world.

Synthetic rubber

During the Second World War, the United States began mass producing synthetic rubber at plants across the country. Today, there are nearly 20 types of synthetic rubber, each produced through the petroleum refining process and containing unique ingredients to meet the unique needs of drivers.

Plus, tire manufacturers are using more and more natural tire ingredients to improve performance and cut our carbon footprint.

For example, eco-friendly winter tires such as the Nokian Hakkapeliitta R2 use silica, derived from sand, for extra grip, along with canola oil and natural rubber to remain soft even in extreme temperatures.

According to the US Rubber Manufacturer’s Association, about 70 per cent of all rubber used is synthetic rubber.

Photo credit: Charcom/istock/Thinkstock