Vital Applications of Elastomers Across Industries
Countless unsung materials are critical to society and deserve considerably more attention than they receive. Elastomer products are integral to several industries and thousands of products, ranging from medical equipment to the soles of running shoes.
Let’s explore the myriad applications of elastomers, the requisite input materials, and various types of elastomers engineered to solve specific problems.
What Are Elastomers?
End-use consumers are likely familiar with rubber elastomers, but this example fails to represent the breadth of elastomer properties and applications. Structurally, elastomers are long-chain polymers comprised of carbon, hydrogen and silicon. When oxygenated, these materials exhibit varying degrees of viscosity and elasticity. Chemical engineering allows producers to adapt these materials at the molecular level to meet the demands of specific applications.
Different types of elastomers exhibit different properties based on three variables:
- The number of crosslinks, or points where these molecules overlap and bind.
- The strength of the crosslink bond.
- The distribution of crosslinks across the material.
Elastomers vs. Polymers
While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, the point deserves clarification. Elastomers are a kind of polymer defined primarily by their elastic and flexible properties. Other types of polymers include natural materials, like rubber, as well as most kinds of plastic, nylon and cellulose, just to name a few.
Based on these properties, elastomers are divided into two main categories:
Thermoplastic elastomers – Thermal-sensitive elastomers melt at different temperatures. While easier to make and use many applications, they are not well suited for harsh environments. Thermoplastic elastomers are also easier to recycle and exhibit exceptional stretching characteristics.
Thermoset elastomers – This type of elastomer is not sensitive to heat, the result of a vulcanization process that gives these materials a more rubber-like or even plastic-like feel.
Common Applications of Elastomers by Type
Chemical engineering has enabled elastomer manufacturers to make minute adjustments to the properties of elastomers to suit specific applications. These subcategories of elastomers are just a few of the many available today.
Polyurethane elastomers – Perhaps the most outwardly visible elastomers, polyurethane is used in manufacturing and thousands of consumer products, including clothing, cushions, upholstery, cables, and more.
Dielectric elastomers – Also known as DEs, dielectric elastomers convert electricity into a mechanical reaction. Research and development of DEs dates back to 1880, though the requisite carbon and hydrogen-based materials necessary weren’t invented until the mid-20th century. DEs are used in robots, computing and niche applications, which have long-term potential for wider commercial use.
Natural rubber elastomers – Sourced from three different types of trees, natural rubber is a commercially harvested and processed sap. Natural rubber requires varying degrees of vulcanization and processing to achieve idealized results but remains one of the most cost-effective – and important – materials in the global economy. More than 13 million tons of natural rubber is produced globally each year.
Additional examples of elastomers include:
- Rubber cement and glue
- Medical tubing
- Anti-vibration components in manufacturing
- Elastomeric gaskets
Which Industries Rely on Elastomers?
From food production to aerospace, most industries use elastomers in some capacity. Three industries rely most heavily on elastomeric materials and account for most of their use.
- Automotive – Elastomers are vital to automotive production. Different chemical structures are used to create tires, windshield wipers, seals, and gaskets and provide vibration dampening in the suspension and engine block.
- Oil and gas – The fossil-fuel industry uses primarily synthetic elastomers for hydraulic seals, hoses and high-heat applications during refinement.
- Industrial – Elastomers are used in industrial seals, tubing, and most types of electrical insulation. In some settings, they’re the primary compound in belts and related components.
The (Growing) Global Elastomers Market
Elastomers are critical to global economic output, though input costs contribute to price volatility and occasionally inconsistent supply. The elastomers market is expected to exceed $104 billion in 2023 and grow 6.71% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) through 2030.
China and Southeast Asia lead both elastomer production and consumption, primarily to support its expansive manufacturing infrastructure. However, the North American market is growing quickly, influenced in part by the accelerated reshoring trends in manufacturing and distribution.
Leading manufacturers like The Dow Chemical Company, BASF and others have wrestled with dramatic price fluctuations for raw materials, influenced by tightening petroleum supplies since 2022.
A Look Ahead
Just as suppliers are expanding their sources of raw materials and synthetic production, manufacturers are diversifying supply chains to mitigate the risk of shortages and price volatility.
At the same time, chemical engineers are developing more use-specific products, some of which rely on different compounds to provide an added degree of production flexibility, thereby lowering costs.
Expand Your Elastomer Sourcing with Tilley
For more than 60 years, Tilley Distribution has provided customers with flexible elastomer sourcing and exceptional customer support. With global reach and strong partnerships with leading manufacturers, we provide access to a wide catalog of products, robust distribution capabilities and other value-added services. See what Tilley can do for you; contact us today.