It's the late 1800's, and chemists all over the world are failing miserably at synthesizing rubber. The problem is that they are trying to duplicate the structure of natural rubber in an attempt to duplicate the properties. It takes a Catholic priest working on a completely unrelated project to find a synthetic rubber formula that works.
On February 14, 1878, in the town of Hansbeke, Belgium, a child named Julius Arthur Nieuwland is born. No one takes notice at the time, but this small child will have a great impact on the synthetic rubber industry.
In 1880, the Nieuwland family immigrates to South Bend, Indiana, just down the road from Notre Dame. As the young boy grows, he becomes interested in botany, and naturally enrolls in the nearest university, Notre Dame, where he studies Latin, Greek, and botany, plays the guitar, and prepares to become a Catholic priest.
After he receives his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame, Nieuwland enters graduate school at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. and begins his research on acetylene, and inadvertently, synthetic rubber. As a graduate student, Nieuwland becomes fascinated with the gas, and researches it extensively. As a priest, ordained in 1903, and a doctoral candidate, Nieuwland writes "Some Reactions of Acetylene," in which he outlines the procedure for reacting acetylene with arsenic trichloride in the presence of aluminum chloride to form a poisonous gas which would later be developed and called Lewisite, his least favorite discovery.
After receiving his PhD, Father Nieuwland returns to South Bend to take a position as a professor of botany to finance his one passion outside the Church: acetylene research. In 1906, Father Nieuwland passes his beloved gas through a solution of copper and alkali chlorides and unwittingly enters the synthetic rubber business. The only thing he does know is that this reaction evolves a peculiar odor, but no solid or liquid products. The years pass, and the Reverend's repeated attempts to isolate this mystery product fail. In 1918, Father Nieuwland is made Professor of Organic Chemistry, a title which fails to impress the stubborn gas, as it has defied 14 years of isolation attempts. Then, in 1920, a breakthrough occurs.
By changing the catalyst and the acidity of the mixture, the rate and conversion of the reaction are greatly increased. With success at hand, Father Nieuwland sets up and apparatus to collect the gas, and is surprised to find that he has collected a yellowish oil in addition to the gas. The oil is identified as divinyl acetylene, which, when left alone, will thicken into a jelly and then into a hard resin which tends to explode when handled. Despite the danger, Father Nieuwland and his group continue research with the oil. One fateful day in 1923, they react the divinyl acetylene with sulfur dichloride, and produce a substance with elastic properties resembling rubber. This product is too plastic for commercial use, but the Reverend now knows that he is in the rubber business, and characteristically, fails to become excited.
Two years later, while giving a lecture before a gathering of organic chemists in Rochester, NY, Father Nieuwland makes a casual mention of the discovery. Dr. Elmer K. Bolton, of the DuPont laboratories, comes to startled attention at this aside. He and his coworkers have been actively searching for synthetic rubber with some focus on acetylene, only to meet the same disappointment that all previous attempts at synthetic rubber have brought. After patent arrangements are made, a team of 28 scientists at DuPont, led by Wallace Carothers, formally takes over commercial development of the Reverend's discovery.
The first specimens of divinyl acetylene rubber are a great disappointment. No two samples have the same properties and all samples fail to retain their elasticity for a satisfactory period of time. Foiled by the yellow oil, the DuPont scientists turn their focus towards it's little brother, the gas, monovinyl acetylene. Father Nieuwland suggests that the gas be treated with hydrogen chloride, and a thin, clear liquid is produced and christened chloroprene.
When polymerized, chloroprene forms an elastic material very similar to fully vulcanized rubber, except that the new material is resistant to degradation by oil, sunlight, and air, and chlorprene rubber does not require the addition of sulfur for vulcanization. Low molecular weight polychloroprene is sold under the trade name DuPrene, and later neoprene, as a specialty rubber and receives little notice. Why? The public is used to hearing about the great new synthetic rubber which usually turned out to be useless when tested. After tires are made and tested by Dayton Rubber Manufacturing Co., in Dayton, Ohio, and a report of satisfactory performance is released in June, 1934, the public begins to take notice. With the synthetic's resistance to chemicals and the elements, soon production of chloroprene rubber is in full swing.
Father Nieuwland has a pair of heels made of duprene for the shoes he wears on a tour through Europe in 1934. The shoe's soles wear out, and the heels are transferred to another pair. He also has a duprene fountain pen set made as a gift for the Pope, but he forgets to bring it.
Many forget about Father Nieuwland. He was an unassuming man who stayed mostly in his laboratory, often eating and sleeping there, stretched out on the lab bench, a rolled up lab coat as a pillow. He refused any royalties on his creation due to his vow of poverty as a priest. Yet we must not forget this creator of chloroprene, possibly the greatest figures in industrial invention.
So next time you are in South Bend, remember that the football stadium is only the second biggest thing at Notre Dame.
When Father Nieuwland discovers how to make a good synthetic rubber from acetylene in 1923, the world fails to take notice. Here are a few things they do notice.
The Irish Civil War ends, and the Irish win their independence from Great Britain. (Fighting Irish and a priest from Notre Dame. Coincidence?)
The Turkish Republic is born.
The first 24 hour endurance race for sports cars is held in Le Mans, France. (I'll bet they use a lot of rubber!)
2. Herbert, Vernon and Attilio Bisio. Synthetic Rubber: A Project That Had to Succeed. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985.
3. Howard, Frank A. Buna Rubber: The Birth of an Industry, D. van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1947.
4. Wolf, Howard and Ralph. Rubber: A Story of Glory and Greed. New York: Covici, Friede, 1936.