Energy Lessons From America's Early Synthetic Rubber Program

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A new online exhibition of the Chemical Heritage Foundation uses oral history to expand our understanding of how a balance between government, industry and academia, and between competition and cooperation, accelerated production of synthetic rubber after Pearl Harbor. As it notes:

...the goal for rubber capacity set by the government was reached by 1944, and over 200 patents related to synthetic rubber were shared among collaborators. Before World War II the United States produced only 9,450 tons, or 1.2 percent of the total domestic consumption of synthetic rubber. The war-mobilization effort created literally tons:

  • one-half ton of rubber for each Sherman tank: 50,000 tanks equals 25,000 tons of rubber
  • 1 ton for each heavy bomber: 30,000 bombers equals 30,000 tons of rubber
  • approximately 160,000 pounds of rubber for each battleship
  • 45 million pairs of rubber boots
  • 77 million pairs of rubber-soled shoes
  • 104 million pairs of rubber-heeled shoes
  • 51 rubber plants: 12 plants for butadiene; 30 built for polymerization

In 1944 alone 1.4 million airplane tires were produced using just a fraction of the more than 773,000 tons of synthetic rubber produced in the United States. While the United States started the war with "not a single pound" of synthetic rubber produced domestically, by war's end the nation had become the world's largest exporter of synthetic rubber. Despite the political battles, initial resistance of industrial competitors, and the scale of the task at hand, chemists "on the ground" solved the scientific problem of synthetic rubber.

If safer production of more energy from all sources -- hydrocarbon, nuclear and renewable -- has reached an emergency level, can we learn from the experience of 70 years ago? Can government sometimes push industrial and academic research past a bottleneck by promoting greater information sharing while retaining competitive incentives? There was an even more momentous breakthrough in scaling up penicillin production, as an American Chemical Society site documents.

Do these experiences of 70 years ago matter now? Nobody knows. Maybe the low-hanging fruit hypothesis is right. But I'll put it another way. Considering the vast size of the world's research and development programs, it would really surprise me if there weren't some combination of ideas and discoveries, in North America and elsewhere, theoretical and applied, published and proprietary, that together could not solve at least some of our most urgent needs. Who will take the initiative?

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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