Rubber bands and their amazing stretching abilities have always fascinated me. Rubber in fact is blessed with the unique ability to stretch to different sizes and come back easily to its original shape and size (mostly). And this particular property is pretty evident in rubber bands that can be stretched to as big a size as possible, and can return back to their original shape and size when let loose.
The elastic material that it is, rubber is obtained from the latex (milky sap) of the rubber trees and other tropical plants.
Usually shapeless and yellow in color, in its natural state rubber is vulcanized (with sulfur and heat) and pigmented (to give it artificial color). The finished products are then modified into a variety of products, including tubes, tires, insulation wires and the more popular rubber bands etc.
So what causes this particular property of a rubber band to enable it to stretch to any shape or size you want? Here are some theories put forward by conclusive studies on the matter.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics and Entropy
One of the main causes for a rubber bands’ incredible elasticity can be attributed to entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. According to this law, a system or body will move from a state of order to another state of disorder naturally. And entropy can be defined as lack of order in a system.
Take the case of a rubber band. The individual molecules that make up the rubber band are called polymers. These polymers are chemically linked to one another via a natural process called crosslinking to form a single giant molecule.
In fact, it is this crosslinking that help the rubber band retain its shape after being stretched out. The crosslinks keep the polymers tied together in spite of them being stretched. In the absence of these crosslinks, the polymers would fail to come back together again and the rubber band would fail to retain its original shape, thus becoming deformed. This usually happens after the rubber band is stretched repeatedly a number of times (the crosslinks become weak and would not be able to tie the polymers together again).
What exactly happens when rubber bands are stretched? The individual polymers present in a rubber band are usually coiled around each other in a tangled, haphazard arrangement. When the band is stretched, these polymers lengthen out to form an ordered line with all the molecules facing the same direction.
This is where the entropy we talked about comes into play. When the force applied on the rubber band is removed, the polymers get a natural urge to return back to their original entropic state, aka the tangled form. And that is why the rubber band tends to bounce back to its original shape and size as soon as you release it.