SALEM, Ohio — As talk of alternative sources for natural rubber bounces around Ohio, scientists in the Buckeye State are looking toward a type of dandelion to change the face of the rubber industry.
The Russian dandelion, or Taraxacum kok-saghyz, is native to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but researchers at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center are working to adapt it to Ohio’s climate. The dandelion’s root produces an abundant, high-quality latex that can be made into rubber.
Right now, the only source of natural rubber is the Brazilian rubber tree, which grows almost exclusively in southeast Asia. This means the U.S. imports 100 percent of its natural rubber from that area of the world, which could cause problems.
Without a domestic source for this product, the U.S. runs a risk of supply interruption, according to Bill Ravlin, the principal investigator for the dandelion project.
Also, the inventory of natural rubber is dwindling and the shortage has driven up the cost of rubber seven-fold since 2002. The U.S. relies on rubber to make tires, not only for commercial use, but also for the country’s military vehicles and airplanes. Ravlin said domestic rubber would give the U.S. much more control over the supply, providing a “home grown” solution to defense needs and controlling the cost of tires and other rubber products.
There has been a lot of research on synthetic rubber and while a synthetic product is OK in some instances, it doesn’t meet the performance needs for automobiles, trucks and airplanes.
The dandelion project is being funded through a $3 million Third Frontier Wright Projects Program grant from the state of Ohio. The money will go toward building a pilot processing facility in Wooster that will produce up to 20 metric tons of rubber per year for industrial testing.
An OARDC internal grant and funds from Veyance Technologies, which amounts to $50,000 total, will be used to study four types of Taraxacum kok-saghyz for rubber yield and quality. Veyance, the leading non-tire user of natural rubber, will also work with the center on this aspect of the project.
Over the next three years, scientists will work toward three goals:
– Develop dandelion varieties that produce high levels of rubber.
– Design and build a pilot plant that will provide enough natural rubber for testing.
– Qualify the rubber through companies in the industry.
Once these steps are completed, Ravlin said scientists will scale up production and maximize the extraction technology during the following three to five years.
Eventually, the dandelions used to produce this natural rubber will be a commercial crop in Ohio and other U.S. states, according to Ravlin.
Ohio was involved with natural rubber production under the National Emergency Rubber Act during World War II. At that time, researchers focused on developing alternative domestic rubber sources when the supply lines from southeast Asia were cut. However, after the war, the supply lines were restored, synthetic rubber was invented and research on domestic natural rubber was abandoned.
The Russian dandelions being studied today are beneficial in two ways. In addition to producing rubber, the plants also make a carbohydrate called inulin, which can be used to make ethanol.