Chasing gold

Chasing gold

Worldwide, tyre companies are racing to adapt themselves to the disruptions in the automotive industry by accelerating innovations. A major effort is to find a suitable substitute for natural rubber from Hevea brasiliensis grown mostly in   Southeast Asia plantations. It is found that rubber-yielding Russian dandelion, a summer weed, is found to be a suitable replacement for NR from Hevea. The research on commercialising NR from this ‘weed’ is being spearheaded by Dr Katrina Cornish and her group at Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural & Environmental Sciences. Her research, which has the potential to revolutionise the rubber and tyre industry, aims to develop industrial rubber crop, which matures much quicker than rubber trees that take as much as seven years to give yield

Aresearch team headed by Dr Katrina Cornish at Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural & Environmental Sciences is carefully tending a farm that is growing a special variety of dandelion from Kazakhstan known by the scientific name Taraxacum kok-saghyz. Nicknamed Buckeye Gold, its roots contain 10–15 per cent natural rubber. The researchers are trying to further improve its rubber yield and quicken its growth to develop it as a sustainable alternative to Hevea brasiliensis grown mostly in Southeast Asia plantations.
“The rubber from Buckeye Gold is very similar to Hevea rubber,” Dr Cornish told Tyre Asia in an interview. “Rubber dandelion   can be grown as an annual crop making it possible to respond to market needs very quickly.  This plant does not cause deforestation either,” she added citing its advantages over Hevea brasiliensis.
Today, 93 per cent of natural rubber (NR) is produced in    Hevea plantations in Southeast Asia. Its importance as a major NR source for the global tyre and rubber industry, however, will not decline soon, the researcher hastened to add. However, a major advantage of dandelion is that unlike Hevea it does not cause deforestation, she said.
Compared to Hevea, it is easier to produce industrial quality latex from the dandelion plant, Dr Cornish said. It takes about 6-8 months to produce rubber from dandelion.  “Field-grown dandelion usually has less than 25 per cent of its rubber in the form of latex (the emulsion).  Most coagulates inside the living root.”
When asked whether rubber from dandelion would put more pressure on current attempts at commercial production of rubber from guayule (Parthenium argentatum), Dr Cornish said it could be possible. “However, the properties of grafted natural rubber (GNR) are different to Hevea and dandelion – these should be capitalised upon – perhaps for particular tyre components or tyre types.   As you know, I am a big fan of guayule latex and am still working to commercialise this product,” she explained.

Buckeye. Gold

Currently Dr Cornish’s research is on to modify Buckeye Gold to increase its rubber content and make it resistance to diseases and cross-pollination with other native plants. She is also trying to convince farmers that they could hope to profitably cultivate dandelion and utilise the waste after extracting rubber for other purposes economically.
In a recent comment Dr Cornish emphasised that the widespread use of rubber extracted from dandelion will be possible only if a large number of farmers take it up as a profitable cash crop. “Without farmers growing it, there are no farmers lobbying for it,” she was quoted by Chemical and Engineering News as saying.
Her research is also aimed to improve the dandelion variety so that it could potentially be cultivated in different habitats allowing rubber to be produced closer to where it is needed. It would further cut down on the cost of energy-intensive transportation. Buckeye Gold variety that Dr Cornish’s team is developing is less vulnerable to diseases and it is better able to withstand herbicides and pesticides. It can also grow even in poor soil without much tending.
In the context of forecast that NR consumption is expected to touch 17 million tonnes by 2025, its market will continue to be large. Dandelion rubber can address to a great extend the rising demand if the right variety is developed and cultivated.
It is estimated that global rubber shortage of NR may increase to over one million tonnes by 2020 as demand from tyre makers in emerging market will boost consumption. Researchers have found that dandelions delivered per-hectare rubber yields on par with the best Hevea rubber plantations in Southeast Asia.
Dr Cornish’s team has achieved annual per-hectare yields of more than 1,500 kg of rubber with just the second generation dandelion, which is on a level with the best in Southeast Asian Hevea plantations.
It is in this context that her research gains great importance. Already top tyre makers such as Bridgestone and Continental are investing in the use of dandelion rubber instead of Hevea rubber to produce high-quality tyres.
Continental Tires in partnership with researchers has developed treads that were made completely with dandelion rubber under ‘Taraxagum’ brand name. It has set up the Taraxagum Lab in Anklam near the Baltic Sea island of Usedom signalling its intention to use NR from dandelion in tyre-making and reduce its dependence on Hevea from Southeast Asia.
For Dr Cornish, her goal is to produce Buckeye Gold into a major source of NR and boost rubber production in her state of Ohio turning the crop into industrial rubber farms that will address issues such as price volatility and sustainability.

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