Recently, Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and the Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center received a $3 million grant to start turning dandelions into rubber.
Yes, 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 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.
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.
Photo by TouTouke.