This Firm Is Turning Dandelion Weed Into Rubber Tires

Scientists are spearheading innovative approaches to fortify the US rubber market amid threats to the primary natural rubber supply in Southeast Asia. The traditional supply chain is jeopardized by disease and escalating demand, prompting a shift towards sustainable North American sources – the Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TK) dandelion and the guayule shrub. As these plants necessitate specialized extraction methods, researchers, led by Katrina Cornish from Ohio State University, are focusing on enhancing efficiency and increasing latex yield.

In comparison to tapping tropical trees for latex, the TK dandelion and guayule shrub present unique challenges. Cornish emphasizes the importance of cost-effective large-scale extraction methods to compete in the tire market successfully.

The urgency arises from the fact that the US is entirely reliant on natural rubber imports, with 10 percent of the supply lost to disease in 2019. The potential transmission of South American leaf blight to Southeast Asia poses a severe threat, warning of a global collapse if such a scenario unfolds.

Guayule latex extraction involves grinding the shrub’s bark to release latex particles into a “milkshake.” Researchers have enhanced this process by incorporating flocculants, reducing washing cycles, and improving overall latex yield. The resulting latex from guayule surpasses known polymers in strength and softness, enabling increased filler in production without compromising valuable properties.

The TK dandelion’s latex is extracted from its roots, akin to guayule. A breakthrough occurred when graduate student Nathaniel King-Smith discovered that adding EDTA significantly increased latex yield. This serendipitous finding allows for immediate latex extraction, eliminating the months-long storage period and offering a more efficient method.

While the TK dandelion extraction process holds promise, researchers aim to collaborate with flocculant chemists to further refine guayule extraction. Cornish, with over a decade of experience in planting, harvesting, and latex extraction, envisions establishing a full-scale latex processing plant on Ohio State’s Wooster campus. The current focus is on small-scale production for premium latex markets to generate funding for future expansion.

In conclusion, these developments in latex extraction methods from sustainable North American sources are pivotal in securing a stable and competitive natural rubber industry in the United States. The collaborative efforts of researchers, their commitment to efficiency and sustainability, signify a significant stride in ensuring the resilience of global supply chains.

The potential collapse of economies due to a shortage of natural rubber underscores the critical importance of these advancements in securing the future of this vital industry.

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