Global warming is affecting many industries and the tire industry is one of them. Here’s the story. As you are undoubtedly aware, rubber is a key component of tires. What you may not know, however, is that there are two types of rubber involved. The first is synthetic rubber, a type of rubber that is made from petroleum. Synthetic rubber comprises about 70% of the rubber in your average tire. The second is natural rubber. Natural rubber is the original old-time rubber compound and it is made from the latex sap harvested from rubber trees. It makes up about 30% of the rubber in today’s tires.
So what’s the global warming issue? Over the last few decades, the fluctuations in the growing cycles of rubber trees in the sub-tropical zone where rubber trees grow have varied significantly. In some seasons the yield is strong and, in others very weak. With these fluctuations in the supply of natural rubber, the laws of supply and demand take over and costs go up and down. This makes the production of tires, indeed all products made from natural rubber, rather difficult to control.
Continental, a leading German tire manufacturing company, decided it was time to look for alternatives. Fortunately, rubber trees are not the only source of natural latex so the search was on. Eventually they came up with an easy to grow alternative to rubber trees: dandelions. That’s right, dandelions. As it turns out, the white fluid that comes out of dandelions is a latex that is similar enough to rubber tree latex that it can be used to make tires.
This was good news for Continental since the industrial use of dandelions offers great advantages. First, they are an undemanding plant that can be cultivated on land not suitable for food production. This means that dandelion latex could possibly be obtained on land not far from production plants. This allows better control of the growing process and eliminates the long and costly journey that rubber latex currently takes from South America or West Africa.
Technically, the rubber that is produced from the dandelion root is called Taraxagum. The name comes from the botanical name for the dandelion: Taraxacum. Especially good news is that not only is Taraxagum a nice alternative to rubber tree compounds, quite usable, it is higher yielding. Continental was able to extract several kilos of dandelion latex from a small pilot system, which would have been double the yield possible from a conventional rubber tree plant under the same circumstances.
But how does it perform? The initial tests run so far with Taraxagum are encouraging. Tires made from Taraxagum perform closely to those made from conventional natural rubber. The scientists at Continental are excited about this but challenges exist in the cultivation of enough dandelions to make industrial-scale production possible. Nonetheless, Continental believes that they will be making tires based on dandelion latex in some 5 years.