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Current Sources Of Natural Rubber

Close to 28 million tons of rubber were produced in 2013, of which approximately 44% was natural. Since the bulk of the rubber produced is of the synthetic variety, which is derived from petroleum, the price of natural rubber is determined, to a large extent, by the prevailing global price of crude oil. Today, Asia is the main source of natural rubber, accounting for about 94% of output in 2005. The three largest producing countries, Thailand, Indonesia (2.4 million tons) and Malaysia, together account for around 72% of all natural rubber production. Natural rubber is not cultivated widely in its native continent of South America due to the existence of South American leaf blight, and other natural predators of the rubber tree.
 
Cultivation
 
Rubber latex is extracted from rubber trees. The economic life period of rubber trees in plantations is around 32 years — up to 7 years of immature phase and about 25 years of productive phase.
 
The soil requirement of the plant is generally well-drained, weathered soil consisting of laterite, lateritic types, sedimentary types, no lateritic red, or alluvial soils.
 
The climatic conditions for optimum growth of rubber trees are:
 
l  Rainfall of around 250 cm evenly distributed without any marked dry season and with at least 100 rainy days per year
l  Temperature range of about 20 to 34 °C, with a monthly mean of 25 to 28 °C
l  High atmospheric humidity of around 80%
l  Bright sunshine, amounting to about 2000 hours per year at the rate of six hours per day throughout the year
l  Absence of strong winds
 
Many high-yielding clones have been developed for commercial planting. These clones yield more than 2,000 kg of dry rubber per hectare per year, when grown under ideal conditions.
 
Collection
 
In places such as Kerala, where coconuts are in abundance, the half shell of coconut is used as the collection container for the latex, but glazed pottery or aluminium or plastic cups are more common elsewhere. The cups are supported by a wire that encircles the tree. This wire incorporates a spring so it can stretch as the tree grows. The latex is led into the cup by a galvanised "spout" knocked into the bark. Tapping normally takes place early in the morning, when the internal pressure of the tree is highest. A good tapper can tap a tree every 20 seconds on a standard half-spiral system, and a common daily "task" size is between 450 and 650 trees. Trees are usually tapped on alternate or third days, although many variations in timing, length, and number of cuts are used. The latex, which contains 25–40% dry rubber, is in the bark, so the tapper must avoid cutting right through to the wood, else the growing cambial layer will be damaged and the renewing bark will be badly deformed, making later tapping difficult. It is usual to tap a pannel at least twice, sometimes three times, during the tree's life. The economic life of the tree depends on how well the tapping is carried out, as the critical factor is bark consumption. A standard in Malaysia for alternate daily tapping is 25 cm (vertical) bark consumption per year. The latex tubes in the bark ascend in a spiral to the right. For this reason, tapping cuts usually ascend to the left to cut more tubes.
 
The trees will drip latex for about four hours, stopping as latex coagulates naturally on the tapping cut, thus blocking the latex tubes in the bark. Tappers usually rest and have a meal after finishing their tapping work, then start collecting the liquid "field latex" at about midday. Some trees will continue to drip after the collection and this leads to a small amount of "cup lump" which is collected at the next tapping. The latex that coagulates on the cut is also collected as "tree lace". Tree lace and cup lump together account for 10–20% of the dry rubber produced. Latex that drips onto the ground, "earth scrap", is also collected periodically for processing of low-grade product.
 
Field coagula
 
There are four types of field coagula, "cuplump", "treelace", "smallholders’ lump" and "earth scrap". Each has significantly different properties.
 
Cup lump is the coagulated material found in the collection cup when the tapper next visits the tree to tap it again. It arises from latex clinging to the walls of the cup after the latex was last poured into the bucket, and from late-dripping latex exuded before the latex-carrying vessels of the tree become blocked. It is of higher purity and of greater value than the other three types.
 
Tree lace is the coagulum strip that the tapper peels off the previous cut before making a new cut. It usually has higher copper and manganese contents than cup lump. Both copper and manganese are pro-oxidants and can lower the physical properties of the dry rubber.
 
Smallholders’ lump is produced by smallholders who collect rubber from trees far away from the nearest factory. Many Indonesian smallholders, who farm paddies in remote areas, tap dispersed trees on their way to work in the paddy fields and collect the latex (or the coagulated latex) on their way home. As it is often impossible to preserve the latex sufficiently to get it to a factory that processes latex in time for it to be used to make high quality products, and as the latex would anyway have coagulated by the time it reached the factory, the smallholder will coagulate it by any means available, in any container available. Some smallholders use small containers, buckets etc., but often the latex is coagulated in holes in the ground, which are usually lined with plastic sheeting. Acidic materials and fermented fruit juices are used to coagulate the latex — a form of assisted biological coagulation. Little care is taken to exclude twigs, leaves, and even bark from the lumps that are formed, which may also include tree lace collected by the smallholder.
 
Earth scrap is the material that gathers around the base of the tree. It arises from latex overflowing from the cut and running down the bark of the tree, from rain flooding a collection cup containing latex, and from spillage from tappers’ buckets during collection. It contains soil and other contaminants, and has variable rubber content, depending on the amount of contaminants mixed with it. Earth scrap is collected by the field workers two or three times a year and may be cleaned in a scrap-washer to recover the rubber, or sold off to a contractor who will clean it and recover the rubber. It is of very low quality and under no circumstances should it be included in block rubber or brown crepe.
 
Processing
 
The latex will coagulate in the cups if kept for long. The latex has to be collected before coagulation. The collected latex, "field latex", is transferred into coagulation tanks for the preparation of dry rubber or transferred into air-tight containers with sieving for ammoniation. Ammoniation is necessary to preserve the latex in a colloidal state for longer periods of time.
 
Latex is generally processed into either latex concentrate for manufacture of dipped goods or it can be coagulated under controlled, clean conditions using formic acid. The coagulated latex can then be processed into the higher-grade, technically specified block rubbers such as SVR 3L or SVR CV or used to produce Ribbed Smoke Sheet grades.
 
Naturally coagulated rubber (cup lump) is used in the manufacture of TSR10 and TSR20 grade rubbers. The processing of the rubber for these grades is a size reduction and cleaning process to remove contamination and prepare the material for the final stage of drying.
 
The dried material is then baled and palletized for storage and shipment in various methods of transportation.
 
Transportation
 
Natural rubber latex is shipped from factories in south-west Asia, South America, and North Africa to destinations around the world. As the cost of natural rubber has risen significantly, the shipping methods which offer the lowest cost per unit of weight are preferred. Depending on the destination, warehouse availability, and transportation conditions, some methods are more suitable to certain buyers than others. In international trade, latex rubber is mostly shipped in 20-foot ocean containers. Inside the ocean container, various types of smaller containers are used by factories to store latex rubber.