Though it often goes unnoticed, nature and technology are significantly entangled. For example, landing an airplane would be nearly impossible without wheels produced from Hevea brasiliensis, commonly referred to as the rubber tree. Perhaps we don’t make that connection because it’s not right in front of us (most of the world’s rubber trees reside in Southeast Asia). But a new rubber resource located in backyards everywhere may start to change that perception.
Recently, Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and the Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center (OBIC) received a $3 million grant to start turning dandelions into rubber. The milky roots of those plentiful flowers that seem to pop up everywhere (whether wanted or unwanted), are capable of producing a natural rubber. Actually, it’s not all dandelions but a particular Russian dandelion named Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TKS) that is being used (though TKS looks nearly identical to the dandelions peppering fields across the U.S.). TKS produces a natural rubber in its roots that is comparable to the latex extracted from rubber trees.
Currently, rubber trees are the only source of commercially available natural rubber. As a result, 100 percent of the natural rubber used in the United States has to be imported. And, as the demand for natural rubber in the U.S. continues to increase, so does its price tag (rubber prices have increased seven-fold since 2002). Overall, the U.S. spends more than $3 billion a year to import natural rubber – 80 percent of which is used in tires (most notably, trucking, construction and aviation tires). While the U.S. does produce synthetic rubber, petroleum-derived rubber does not have the performance characteristics (heat tolerance, adhesion) required to make things like tires.
But tests of dandelion rubber have found its quality to be nearly equal to its rubber-tree counterpart. And Ohio State researchers plan to work to raise the performance of the TKS crop even higher through improved growing and harvesting methods and, eventually, genetic manipulation. In addition to rubber, TKS also will be used to produce another product: inulin. Inulin is a naturally occurring carbohydrate that can be used as a food additive or even turned into biofuel. Nearly half of TKS dry matter is comprised of inulin.
The $3-million grant (provided by the Third Frontier Wrights Project Program) will be used to build a processing facility on OARDC’s campus that will generate 20 metric tons of dandelion rubber a year for industry testing. The dandelion rubber will be tested for use in a variety of applications, but primarily for use in tires. Researchers hope the project will lead to the production of the country’s first dandelion rubber commercial facility in the next five years. By 2015, they hope the plant will be producing 60 million pounds of natural rubber.
And perhaps no place is better suited to produce a new type of rubber than Ohio. Since the late nineteenth century, the state has been a leading producer of rubber. Companies such as Goodrich, Goodyear and Firestone all have corporate offices in Ohio and, although the rubber industry there has declined greatly in past fifty years, Akron, Ohio, was once termed the “rubber capital of the world”. But, with the new initiatives, Ohio may once again return to the top of the rubber hierarchy – this time producing much more valuable natural rubber. And when people see a wild dandelion in the middle of a yard, their thoughts may just immediately shift to airplane wheels.
Invention and Technology News, 2008-07-28.