Features

Published: Friday August 22, 2014 MYT 10:00:00 PM
Updated: Friday August 22, 2014 MYT 9:12:41 AM

Tyres made from dandelions? Welcome to the future of rubber!

From flowers to tyres: A piece of rubber made from dandelion plants is seen at the Fraunhofer Institute in Muenster, Germany. – Reuters

From flowers to tyres: A piece of rubber made from dandelion plants is seen at the Fraunhofer Institute in Muenster, Germany. – Reuters

The roadside flower often considered as a pest now has a bright future in the tyre industry.

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 tyres.

“People just think of it as a horrible weed and ask how can you get enough material for tyres from just a small root,” says van der Meer. But it’s no joke. 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 tyre makers such as industry leaders Bridgestone Corp and 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 US research team found the dandelions delivered per-hectare rubber yields on a par with the best rubber tree plantations in 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 US, 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 30cm in height, dwarfing their backyard cousins. They are also developing the dandelions with upright rather than flat-growing leaves so harvesting machines have something to grab on to.

The tyre 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 US$25bil  in annual natural-rubber output. More than 100 years since the invention of synthetic rubber from petrochemicals, global road and air traffic still depend on the unique properties of plant-based rubber, which to date cannot be replicated by man-made materials.

Passenger car tyres need to have a content of between 10% to 40% natural rubber 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.

A laboratory technician prepares a dandelion plant at the Fraunhofer Institute, where research is being undertaken to harness the sticky sap of dandelion roots as a source of rubber. – Reuters

Fungus fears

Tyre makers’ worst fear is that an uncontrollable fungus that has choked all attempts to run plantations in Brazil – where the rubber tree originates – might one day wreak havoc in Southeast Asia.

The volatility of the rubber market has added urgency to the search for alternative crops. Rubber prices surged to a record high of more than US$6 per kg in early 2011 - when weather-related supply shortages in Southeast Asia coincided with strong demand growth and speculative rubber traders betting on further gains. But prices slumped to multi-year lows of US$2 this year on expectations of slowing economic growth in China, the world’s largest rubber market.

The volatility has been compounded by the fact that it takes about seven years to develop a new plantation and, during this development process, farmers tend to react to price changes by increasing or cutting their acreage.

Chuck Yurkovich, head of research and development at Cooper Tyre & Rubber Co, says, “We would hopefully have a steady supply of a good natural rubber substitute at consistent prices to take us out of the wild swing in cost.” Cooper Tyre is currently collaborating with Bridgestone in an Ohio-based dandelion project.

Any impact on prices would have huge implications for tyre firms. Natural rubber accounted for about a third of raw material costs at the world’s second-largest tyre manufacturer Michelin last year, for example, and almost a quarter at smaller peer Pirelli, say analysts at Credit Suisse.

Dandelion plants seen in glass jars at a greenhouse at the Fraunhofer Institute. – Reuters

Another concern about the current market is that rubber-supplying countries, led by Thailand and Indonesia, will not have the acreage to keep up with long-term growth in tyre demand. Credit Suisse analysts put demand growth rates at close to 4% annually over the next four years. But far from hoping that the rubber tree can be replaced, tire makers would be happy with even a complementary source.

In Germany, lead researcher Dirk Pruefer with the University of Muenster and state-backed research institute Fraunhofer, says the breeders with his project have achieved yields of up to 500 kg per hectare in the open field and are pushing for 1,000 kg.

Pruefer says calculations have shown that with the targeted yield of about 1,000 kg, land the size of Austria would be required to meet the entire global demand for natural rubber just from dandelions.

The dandelion researchers are tight-lipped when it comes to disclosing how they process the harvest into a usable feedstock. One approach is to cut off the taproots and grind them into a pulp with the addition of some water. Further processing steps yield solid blocks of natural rubber.

The experimental rubber was shown on the test track to be on par with conventional natural rubber but it will take some more years of development even after the ongoing projects end before the first dandelion tyres come to market. – Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Features, dandelion

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