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Russian dandelions could be new source for rubber

By R&D Editors 05/11/2011

SOURCE: R&D Magazine

Just don't call it a weed. A variety of Russian dandelion generates a sap-like substance in its roots that is well-suited for doing the job of petroleum in commercial plastics. Ford has jumped on the project. Image: Ohio State University

The “Russian dandelion,” Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TKS), is being domesticated at Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center’s (OARDC) Wooster campus and produces high-quality natural rubber in its fleshy taproot. Its performance mirrors the natural rubber produced from Hevea brasiliensis (the Brazilian rubber tree). According to its developers, natural rubber provides performance characteristics not available from synthetic, petroleum-derived rubber for trucking, construction, and aviation tires.

Natural rubber produced from Hevea is the only commodity volume source for tires and rubber industrial products in the world. Current shortage of supply has driven a six-fold price increase since 2002. Tests of TKS rubber produced in Wooster have found the material to be of comparable quality to Hevea rubber. An important additional product of TKS cultivation is ethanol.

The project was announced by Ford on Tuesday, and company engineers are testing the substance to determine its durability. Initially, the research will focus on the substance’s potential use as a strengthener for impact plastics.

“Managing weed problems is essential to developing TKS as a commercially viable domestic source of natural rubber in the U.S.,” said Bill Ravlin, associate director of OARDC.

Ford could potentially use the substance as a plastics modifier, to help improve the impact strength of plastics. The material might then be used in places such as cupholders, floor mats and interior trim. Ford has previously used sustainable materials in its vehicles including soy foam seat cushions, wheat straw-filled plastic for interior trim and recycled cotton from blue jeans as sound-dampening material

A collaboration including the Ohio State University, the University of Akron, Oregon State University, Cooper Tire and Bridgestone Americas received a $3 million Third Frontier Wright Projects Program grant through the Ohio Department of Development to develop a new industry based on this renewable, domestic source of natural rubber. Most of the funding was targeted to building a pilot-scale processing facility on OARDC’s Wooster campus that will generate 20 metric tons of rubber per year for industrial testing.

“It’s strange to see weeds being grown in perfectly manicured rows in a greenhouse, but these dandelions could be the next sustainable material in our vehicles,” said Harris.

Before the dandelion-derived rubber can be put to use, Ford researchers will assess the initial quality of the material to evaluate how it will perform in a variety of plastics that are used in vehicles and to ensure it meets durability standards.

Besides the dandelion, the team also is looking into the use of guayule (a southwestern U.S. shrub) as a natural rubber, which is provided by OARDC and can also be grown domestically.

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