Plant may be dandy alternative natural rubber source

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Will dandelions some day be a supplemental source for natural rubber? Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. is helping to answer that question.

Facing the prospect of continued escalation of raw material costs and reduced supply, Cooper Tire is partnering with The Program of Excellence in Natural Rubber Alternatives (PENRA) to research the possibilities of a new domestic source of natural rubber.

The leading alternative is the Russian Dandelion, scientifically known as Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TKS). Its roots have the potential to be processed into natural rubber that would serve as the polymer for multiple compound components of a tire including the sidewall, base and tread. Russian Dandelions have a similar appearance to more common dandelions but have a more complex root system.

“Cooper is extremely excited to participate in this innovative ‘green’ project,” says Chuck Yurkovich, Cooper Tire’s vice president of global technology. ”This new process involves forward-thinking technology with potential to bring a competitive substitute supply of natural rubber that will be produced in the United States, reducing our dependency on offshore imports.

"In addition to providing a supply of natural rubber that is critical to a number of industries, it’s also an opportunity for Cooper to remain competitive in the marketplace with an environmentally friendly product that creates jobs here in the United States.”

Initial tests have shown that TKS is molecularly similar to the current main source of natural rubber, Hevea (Brazilian rubber tree).

Exhaustive testing is planned over the next three to four years before PENRA partners will be able to manufacture tires using TKS on a small-scale basis. TKS is not expected to completely erase the need to use natural rubber, but according to PENRA, it has the potential to provide 30% of market requirements of natural rubber.

The U.S. currently spends approximately $3 billion annually on natural rubber imported from Asia.

“If testing is able to qualify TKS as a viable source of natural rubber, the effects could be far-reaching,” says Greg Bowman, advanced technology manager for Cooper Tire. “It would allow U.S.-based tire manufacturers to potentially acquire more flexible resources, while at the same time positively impacting the environment by reducing the carbon footprint created to produce and ship natural rubber to the United States.”

Russian dandelions have traditionally required little fertilization or irrigation, and the Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) estimates farmers would make a greater profit per acre than growing more traditional crops. OARDC and the Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center, along with other university and industry partners, were recently awarded a $3 million grant to develop a renewable, domestic source of natural rubber.

The idea of harvesting Russian Dandelions to produce natural rubber for tires originated during World War II as both Russia and the U.S. looked for alternatives due to supply line cuts. However, once the war ended and supply lines were reopened, research shifted toward further development of synthetic rubbers.

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