Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Mile or Two

This duo has been with me since 2004, I'm impressed. A simple pair of slip-on shoes that have traveled two continents and countless miles. I hate to think of the day when they won't be by my side, or underfoot that is.

These slip-ons recently accompanied me on my first journey to our nation's capital, Washington D.C. where they put on the miles as I journeyed (as I believe all should) to see the monuments. As I went the distance around the city I was reminded of the progress we've somehow managed to create in every aspect of our lives. With that, let's take a stroll down the history of how rubber transforms from goopy tree product to slip-on shoe that becomes a part of you throughout the years.

Action shot

A full description of both natural and synthetic rubber can be found conveniently at this Wikipedia site. But for all with just the passing intrigue. These are the highlights:

Rubber, known more organically as latex was first  found naturally in plants. Much like how syrup comes naturally from trees, a simple tap jammed into the trunk will strike a vein and drain the plant's harvest. This latex though, is pretty weak and flimsy with little structural integrity.

A tree being tapped for its latex

Vulcanization: One of the cooler scientific process names out there.
Through the use of chemistry, latex rubber from plants is combined with various compounds such as sulfur. These additives bind chemically with the rubber molecules to make it stronger. This sort of process is similar to how engineers add carbon atoms and other elements into iron to produce a much stronger form of metal, steel.

Today, much of the rubber we encounter is artificially made in some form or another from petroleum. This process can be more useful as it excludes some of the impurities found naturally in tree latex.

Not surprisingly, artificial rubber comes in some way from fossil fuels . For good measure, here's a page from the 2009 How the Energy Industry Works-an Insider's Guide 

A quick blurb about what 1 barrel of crude gets us

I'm not certain whether my enduring duo is made from vulcanized latex or synthetic rubber. I would guess it is synthetic since they've endured so much. I'm appreciative though that someone figured this stuff out. Used daily, thought of rarely.

Useful as they may be, shoes aren't all good


  1. Shoes are a remarkable invention -- wonder what life would be like without them? Perhaps cities would have to be regulate littering better. I can't imagine the amount of glass people would step on...

    Did you know that vulcanized rubber was invented by accident? Cool fact I learned while researching another article. It was more serendipitous actually, but still :)

  2. I really liked your investigation of the science behind ordinary object! Very cool idea. I definitely recommend more posts that look at what goes into making those everyday products we probably take for granted. well done!

  3. Interesting post, Eric! You had me from the get-go. I agree with Jenny, and your approach makes scientific concepts easily understandable by non-science-minded people like me. Great job!

  4. Love the structure of this post, Eric. Fun and smart.