Sun, Aug 24, 2014 - Page 14 News List

Tire makers race to turn dandelions into rubber

Global tire firms are funding research to breed a type of dandelion native to Kazakhstan that yields tire-grade rubber, hoping to reduce their reliance on Asian tree plantations and ease rubber-price volatility

By Ludwig Burger  /  Reuters, MUENSTER, Germany

Project manager Dirk Pruefer checks dandelion plants at a greenhouse at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology in Muenster, Germany, on Aug. 14.

Photo: Reuters

Dutch biologist Ingrid van der Meer often meets with disbelief when she talks about her work on dandelions and how it could secure the future of road transport.

The reaction is understandable, given that most people regard the yellow flowers as pesky intruders in their gardens rather than a promising source of rubber for tires.

“People just think of it as a horrible weed and ask how can you get enough material for tires from just a small root,” she said.

Her research team is competing with others across the world to breed a type of dandelion native to Kazakhstan whose taproot yields a milky fluid with tire-grade rubber particles in it.

Global tire makers such as industry leader Bridgestone Corp and No. 4 player Continental AG believe they are in for rich pickings and are backing such research to the tune of millions of dollars.

Early signs are good. A small-scale trial by a US research team found the dandelions delivered per-hectare rubber yields on a par with the best rubber-tree plantations in tropical Asia.

So within a decade, rather than being a backyard bane like their wild cousins, the new flowers might be seen in neat rows in hundreds of thousands of hectares across Europe and the US, where they can grow even in poor soil.

And they could have some interesting modifications. For instance, German researchers have bred the plants to grow to up to a foot (30.48cm) in height, dwarfing many of their backyard cousins. They are also developing the dandelions with upright rather than flat-growing leaves — just so harvesting machines have something to grab on to.

The tire industry, which consumes about two-thirds of the world’s natural rubber, has long felt uneasy about its complete reliance on rubber-tree tapping in a handful of Southeast Asian nations, which account for most of the US$25 billion in annual natural-rubber output.

More than 100 years since the invention of synthetic rubber from petrochemicals, global road and air traffic still depends on the unique properties of plant-based rubber — which to date cannot be replicated by the manmade material.

Passenger car tires need to have 10 to 40 percent natural rubber content to allow them to stay flexible at low temperatures and to keep tiny cracks from growing. Truck and aircraft tires need an even higher percentage.

FUNGUS FEARS

Tire makers’ worst fear is that an uncontrollable fungus that has choked all attempts to run plantations in Brazil — where the rubber tree originates — might one day wreak havoc in Southeast Asia.

The volatility of the rubber market has added urgency to the search for alternative crops. Rubber prices surged to a record high of more than US$6 per kg in early 2011 — when weather-related supply shortages in Southeast Asia coincided with strong demand growth and speculative rubber traders betting on further gains.

However, prices slumped to multiyear lows of US$2 this year on expectations of slowing economic growth in China, the world’s largest rubber market.

The volatility has been compounded by the fact that it takes about seven years to develop a new plantation and, during this development process, farmers tend to react to price changes by increasing or cutting their acreage.

Chuck Yurkovich, head of research and development at Cooper Tire & Rubber Co, which collaborates with Bridgestone in an Ohio-based dandelion project, said: “We would hopefully have a steady supply of a good natural rubber substitute at consistent prices to take us out of the wild swing in cost.”

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