If you participate in, and enjoy water sports such as scuba diving, rafting or surfing, it is more than likely that you will have heard of neoprene, especially if you wear a wetsuit while taking part in any of these activities. What is neoprene exactly? Neoprene has been the main material used in the manufacture of wetsuits for decades, and that continues to this day.
This brings us to the title of our article and the question as to what neoprene is, and how it is made. To answer that fully we need to go back and explore how neoprene was initially conceived, its progression through the years, and highlight the many versatile ways it is used for products in virtually every industry.
In the Beginning…
You might be thinking that neoprene is a very recent invention, but it has been around in one form or another for longer than jet engines, color television and nylon. In fact, it is a product that comes from the same company, and the same person who invented nylon, but while nylon first appeared in 1935, neoprene made its debut 5 years earlier, in 1930.
The person credited with developing neoprene was a scientist called Wallace Carruthers, who worked for the DuPont company. At the time, he was attempting to produce a synthetic material which had the same characteristics as rubber. The need for this was great due to natural rubber being in such demand, and it was also becoming increasingly expensive.
DuPont’s first release of the material that we now call neoprene was given the trade name ‘Duprene,’ and its early uses included insulation for telephone wires, hoses for car engines, and industrial gaskets. It performed well, however, there was one major problem and that was the fact that it gave off a hideous odor.
From Duprene to Neoprene
DuPont and their scientists continued to develop this product and by implementing a new production process, they were able to get rid of the ghastly smell, and dramatically reduce the cost of manufacturing it too.
In 1937, DuPont changed the name of the material to neoprene, and its uses expanded to even more products such as shoes, and industrial belts. During World War Two, all neoprene production was commandeered by the US military, because rubber was in short supply and the closest synthetic alternative was a product made in Japan, who just happened to be on the enemy side.
How Is Neoprene Made?
One thing we want to make clear is that this article is not meant to be a chemistry lesson but given that neoprene is a synthetic product, we’ll apologize in advance if the next few sentences contain words with more than 15 letters.
The original process for making neoprene was based on using oil and petroleum-based chemicals being put through a polymerization process which turned the chemicals into rubber-type chips called chloroprene. These chips were then melted, and other ingredients added such as foaming agents, to form neoprene.
Modern neoprene production involves adding water and sulphur to the chloroprene. These are heated, cooled, then frozen, and at this stage, it is made into sheets.
In the 1960s a different process was developed for making neoprene which used limestone instead of oil-based products. The extracted limestone is heated in a furnace and calcium carbonate within the limestone creates the chloroprene rubber chips we mentioned previously.
All this now means we have two distinct methods of making neoprene. The first is using oil-based products, and the second is the extracted limestone method. The debate now exists as to which of the two is preferable.
Oil-based neoprene is still the most popular and widely used; however, given that the limestone method is more environment friendly, there is a school of thought that says this is the best.
The Many Qualities of Neoprene
It is safe to say that the reason neoprene is so widely used in several manufacturing and industrial sectors is because of the many qualities and benefits it offers as a material.
The list is impressive…
- Vibration dampening
- Resistance to tearing
- Resistance to weather
- Heat resistant
- Resistance to many chemicals
- Flame resistant
- Resistance to abrasion
- UV ray resistant
With all these impressive qualities, you might expect that the cost of neoprene would be such that it could only be used for high-ticket, premium products. However, the opposite is true. Neoprene is a relatively inexpensive material to produce and therefore it is used not only in industrial settings but for many consumer products too.
It Is Not All Good News
It would remiss of us if we gave you the impression that neoprene is perfect, and there were no downsides to its production or limits to its use. While there aren’t many, there are some you be aware of.
The first relates back to the production of neoprene using carbon-based products such as oil. This is obviously an issue in terms of the environment, albeit there is an alternative in the case of extracted limestone-based neoprene.
Neoprene is also at risk if it encounters some acidic substances, and if used in water where there is a very high level of chlorination.
With neoprene being used increasingly for clothing items, and the material that wetsuits are made from, there is always the possibility of someone being allergic to one or more of the chemicals used to produce it. This would be evidenced by swelling or itching of the skin, and in the worst cases, it could even lead to some hemorrhaging.
The Many Uses of Neoprene
It might be easier if we listed those industries that don’t use neoprene in some way or another. Even if the products they make don’t have neoprene, it is more than likely that parts of their machinery do, and almost certain that the vehicles used to transport the product have neoprene in them. Here are just a handful of the places and products you can expect to find neoprene in use:
- Safety equipment such as gloves
- Laptop covers
- Knee and elbow supports
- Conveyor belts
- Cable and wiring insulation
- Gaskets for air and water pipes
- Children’s toys
- Hoses (especially in the automobile sector)
- Sports equipment… including wetsuits!
Wetsuits and Neoprene
Neoprene was first used to make wetsuits in the 1950s, and today it is still the #1 material used. The properties we mentioned above such as buoyancy, flexibility, durability and insulation are just some of the many reasons why neoprene is the perfect material for wetsuits to be made from.
The fact that it is also relatively inexpensive means that the cost of wetsuits is not prohibitive. This allows anyone to buy a wetsuit and to enjoy the many water sports and activities it can enhance such as surfing, waterskiing and surfing.