Tire makers race to turn dandelions into rubber
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 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 U.S. 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 acres across Europe and the United States, 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 cm) 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 $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 man-made material.
Passenger car tires need to have 10-40 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.
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