Sap from weeds the new black

Guayule shrub and dan­de­lions pro­duce rub­ber for tyres

The Witness - Wheels - - MOTORING - AL­WYN VI­JOEN

TWO tyre mak­ers from op­po­site ends of the world an­nounced they are join­ing the quest to make tyres from sap that does not come from a rub­ber tree.

The idea is not new, but dates back to short­ages in WW2, when Joseph Stalin had fields planted with the foot-high Rus­sian dan­de­lions (Tarax­acum kok­sag-hyz, or sim­ply “TKS”). This big dan­de­lion grows like the weed it is in any cold to mod­er­ate cli­mate, and can be pressed into a sticky sap, with in­sulin and biomass as by-prod­ucts, ev­ery few weeks.

Adolf Hitler also grew TKS with forced labour. Af­ter World War 2, China and Rus­sia con­tin­ued to make tyres from TKS up to 1953. China has since moved on to the elm-like gutta-per­cha tree (Eu­com­mia ul­moides), which pro­duces a gluti­nous eu-gum from its trees, bark and stems.

In the U.S., the fo­cus has been on tap­ping the sap from the guayule shrub,

(Parthe­nium ar­gen­ta­tum) which grows in the deserts of the south-western United States. Last week, Cooper Tire demon­strated the pro­to­type tyres it had made from guayule sap.

A large team is in­volved, with PanAridus grow­ing the plants and man­u­fac­tur­ing rub­ber from the sap, and the Cor­nell and Clem­son Univer­si­ties aid­ing and abet­ting in re­fin­ing the sys­tems.

Cooper Tire said it ex­pects to make com­plete tyres from guayule-sourced rub­ber by 2017.

In Europe and Ja­pan Fo­cus­ing on the ubiq­ui­tous dan­de­lions in­stead of guayule shrubs, Ja­panese tyre maker Su­mit­omo Rub­ber In­dus­tries (SRI) also an­nounced last week it has en­tered into a joint re­search pro­ject with U.S. biotech com­pany Kul­te­vat to in­ves­ti­gate us­ing Rus­sian dan­de­lions as an al­ter­na­tive source of nat­u­ral rub­ber.

Kul­te­vat is a U.S.-based biotech com­pany with ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in farm­ing sus­tain­able and en­vi­ron­men­tally-friendly sources of rub­ber.

SRI is the world’s sev­enth largest tyre man­u­fac­turer, and aims to re­duce its re­liance on ex­pen­sive and un­sus­tain­able fos­sil re­sources such as oil and coal, which ac­count for ap­prox­i­mately 60% of a con­ven­tional tyre.

SRI launched the ENSAVE 100 tyre in Novem­ber 2013, touted as the world’s first tyre made with­out the use of fos­sil fu­els.

Farm­ers ‘plant­ing tyres’ Both Cooper Tire and SRI are fol­low­ing in the tracks pi­o­neered by an Euro­pean con­sor­tium in­volv­ing 10 part­ners in seven coun­tries from France to Kaza­khstan and the U.S.

In all of them, there will soon be a mar­ket to plant weeds that will pro­duce sap that can be turned into tyres.

The EU-Pearls (for the Pro­duc­tion and Ex­ploita­tion of Al­ter­na­tive Rub­ber and La­tex Sources) is the con­sor­tium the helps farm­ers grow ei­ther guayule or TKS, depend­ing on the cli­mate.

Hol­land has long been ready to Ger­man TKS into rub­ber. In July 2012 In­dian-Dutch com­pany Apollo Vre­destein showed its pro­to­type tyres made from dan­de­lions, and last year Con­ti­nen­tal also said they are ready to pro­duce Tara gum tyres from the Rus­sian dan­de­lion, work­ing with the Fraun­hofer In­sti­tute for Molec­u­lar Bi­ol­ogy and Ap­plied Ecol­ogy IME in Ger­many.

The U.S. grows guayule in the south and may grow TKS in the north, next to Canada, which is al­ready grow­ing the Rus­sian dan­de­lion.

Gi­ant China is grow­ing TKS in the north, Eu­com­mia and guayule in cen­tral China and con­ven­tional rub­ber trees in its hu­mid south.

The guayule shrub thrives in desert con­di­tions and make a la­tex-like sap ideal for turn­ing into rub­ber.

PHOTOS: SUPPLIED

Europe’s small dan­de­lion is not quite the foot-high weed from Rus­sian, but its sticky sap shows why tyre mak­ers are ex­cited about the weed.

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