RESEARCH BREAKTHROUGH IN DANDELION LATEX OUTPUT
As competition hots up in the tyre industry, manufacturers are looking at different global sourcing options for natural rubber to stay competitive. As about 93 per cent of the global NR production is concentrated in South East Asia, they are compelled to review alternatives to reduce risks of total dependence on NR from Hevea brasiliensis grown in this region. In the scramble for home-grown NR sources, intense research is being conducted on latex extraction from two major plants, guayule and dandelion. Dr Christian Schulze Gronover and his research team from Munster University and Fraunhofer Institute of Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME (Munster Branch) have chosen to study Russian dandelion (Taraxacum koksaghyz Rodin) in order to enhance the rubber sap held in the plant’s roots. They feel that dandelion has emerged the favourite candidate as a cost-competitive NR source. In an interview to Tyre Asia Dr Gronover says his team has helped increase dandelion’s latex output through genetic engineering
TA News Bureau
Research in developing a cost-effective alternative to natural rubber from Hevea brasiliensis grown exclusively in South East Asia is being stepped up. Scientists have redoubled efforts to find the best ways to increase NR production from alternative plants such as guayule and dandelion. Their aim is to reduce the dependence on South East Asian countries, which supply almost 93 per cent of world’s NR production.
Not only do researchers want to minimise dependence on monopoly raw material supplies, they are also worried about the potential supply disruptions in case of fungal pathogen Microcyclus ulei, which could cause the South American Leaf Blight (SALB) that would wipe out Hevea.
Besides, with Asian Hevea growers switching to the more remunerative oil palm, the chances of NR prices shooting up cannot be ruled out. Moreover, there is compulsion to minimise the use of synthetic rubber produced from petroleum-derived chemicals that are not environment friendly.
It is known that NR— a unique biopolymer—is the best raw material to manufacture tyres for cars, trucks and aircraft. There is thus the need to ensure uninterrupted NR supplies from other sources. The research team under Dr Christian Schulze Gronover from Munster University and Fraunhofer Institute of Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME (Munster Branch), who studied dandelion NR, explains to Tyre Asia in an interview that the prospects of the plant as an alternative NR source look brighter.
He zeroed in on dandelion because of its inherent NR potential and decided to study its metabolic processes that affect the rubber synthesis with the aim to enhance its annual productivity. What his team had done was to reduce the proportion of inulin, a by-product of the plant, and redirected it to the biosynthesis of NR.
This way they discovered the method to produce more rubber in the dandelion roots using biotechnology methods to promote further inulin degradation in order to make it deliver better agronomic performance.
This process of breeding has heightened dandelion’s commercial potential as an alternative source of NR. His research has pushed the role of dandelion to a more acceptable level than close competitor guayule rubber. This follows his breakthrough research on the proteins that play a vital role in the plant’s rubber production.
Dr Gronover’s team discovered special cells in dandelion that produce the milky fluid containing the rubber. This important rubber producing proteins contribute to the formation of the long polyisoprene chains giving it the typical rubber properties of elasticity and resilience.
His team had identified no fewer than two key components of rubber biosynthesis which enabled the biotechnologists to extract latex in a more economical way. It is now possible to develop plant/crop improvement by molecular precision breeding of dandelion which is a robust and under-demanding plant.
The discovery of the role played by the proteins that contribute to rubber production has opened up the possibility of large-scale industrial farming of dandelion. It is now possible to produce NR by biotechnological means following the identification of the key proteins in the rubber synthesis, Dr Gronover says.
It is known that NR— a unique biopolymer—is the best raw material to manufacture tyres for cars, trucks and aircraft. There is thus the need to ensure uninterrupted NR supplies from other sources
Dandelion will certainly help reduce the dependence on Hevea for rubber. However, the research goal of the current project is not aimed at exclusively on NR from dandelion. “Dandelion is still seen as an alternative and moreover an additional NR source. It also provides access to extra raw material qualities,” he says.
When asked about the cost-effectiveness of dandelion rubber particularly for tyre application, Dr Gronover points out that there are no indications of costs for dandelion NR being higher compared to Heave under the same socio-economic conditions. “Due to the fact that dandelion cultivation and processing is much more amendable to automation, it could be that NR from dandelion will be more cost-effective. Comparison with guayule is not possible since guayule rubber has not been introduced into the market in sufficient quantities.”
Commenting on rubber output from one acre of land compared to NR from Hevea, Dr Gronover said the yield could be expected to be in the same range of Hevea. He feels that dandelion can be grown in any part of the world and its harvesting and processing cost can be reduced through mechanised harvesting and automation processes.
There are no indications that cost for dandelion NR will be higher compared to Hevea under the same socio-economic conditions. Dandelion cultivation and processing are much more amendable to automation making NR from this plant more cost-effective. Comparison with guayule is not possible since guayule rubber has not been introduced into the market in sufficient quantities
The key advantage of dandelion is that it is extremely resilient and can be grown in moderate climate and even in soil that is not or just barely suited for cultivation of food and feed crops.
The success of Dr Gronover’s team has now opened up the way to produce rubber in an eco-friendly environment on a large scale as an excellent alternative NR source. Its rubber provides extreme elasticity, tensile strength and low-temperature flexibility making it an ideal raw material for tyre manufacturing.
Dandelion also has the advantage of growing annually unlike Hevea which takes between seven and ten years to deliver the latex. Several European tyre manufacturers have produced durable tyres from dandelion rubber as proof that NR from this plant can replace that from Hevea, vows Dr Gronover.