People have been making rubber products, from elastic bands to tires, for centuries, but a key step in this process has remained a mystery. Scientists from the Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan have described this elusive part of rubber production that could have major implications for improving the material and its uses. Their findings, if used to improve tire performance, for example, could mean higher gas mileage for consumers and less air pollution.

A chemical process called vulcanization has been critical for the manufacturing of quality rubber since the second half of the 1800s. Chemists have improved the process, but progress has largely plateaued in recent years. If scientists could gain insight into the details of vulcanization, they could further tweak it to make even better rubber.

Using the latest analytical techniques, the researchers discovered a previously unknown structure that forms during vulcanization. The new observation could contribute to making the ubiquitous material even better.