Dandelions have long been considered a nuisance weed by most gardeners. However they, along with the rest of the world, may soon start treating the annoying plant with the respect it deserves. That's because the white milky sap of their taproot contains particles of rubber of such superior quality, that Dutch biologist Ingrid van der Meer, refers to dandelions as the future of road transport.
And, she is not the only one. Research teams all the way from Germany to the U.S., armed with millions of dollars in funding from major tire manufacturers, are scrambling to see if these virtually indestructible plants can be used as a reliable source of rubber in the future.
The reason for this urgency is due to the rapidly declining choice of raw material sources. While tire companies traditionally used to obtain their supply of rubber from plantations in Brazil and Southeast Asia, a recent uncontrollable fungus has eradicated the South American plantations. Manufacturers are concerned not just about the dependency on a single region, but also about what would happen if a similar fungus struck the Asian plantations. Given that it takes up to seven years for a new rubber plantation to yield a successful crop, it would leave them with no raw material to work with. Moreover, even in the best of conditions, many analysts believe that the current supply of rubber from Thailand and Indonesia will not be enough to fulfill global demand within the next few years.
Also, while synthetic substitutions has been successfully used to replace natural rubber in some industries, the tires used on vehicles and airplanes still require the unique properties of natural rubber to keep them flexible and prevent cracking.
What's even more exciting is that the new source of rubber that dandelions might provide would allow manufacturers the flexibility of growing their materials in Europe and the United States. This would diversify the global supply of rubber, while bringing a reliable source of materials closer to many factories. Dandelions are also less vulnerable to pests and fungus and have a vegetation period of only one year before the rubber can be harvested. Plus, the plants are virtually indestructible and thrive even in poor soil.
So how did the scientists stumble upon this highly unusual source of rubber? Turns out that this is not a new discovery but one that has been known to mankind since World War II.
When trade with Asia collapsed during the conflict, manufacturers in the USA, Europe and the former Soviet Union, all turned to this humble weed for rubber. However, the yields were not very good and therefore once the trade links were restored, manufacturers returned to the rubber trees for their raw material.
This latest bout of interest was brought on by fungus fears, price fluctuations as well as advances in bioengineering, which has helped produce dandelions that contain enough rubber to make them economically viable.
Scientists from Ohio State University in partnership with Bridgestone and Cooper Tire, were the first to re-start the feasibility studies on the dandelions in 2008. Research teams and tire manufacturers from other countries followed soon.
The various groups working on the project are all experimenting with the genetics of these rubber-producing dandelions with one aim in mind - to create the most desirable strain - one which bears the largest quantities of rubber in its white sap.
So far, results are promising. A small trial led by the U.S. research team found that under optimal conditions, their dandelions produced as much rubber per-area as the most successful rubber-tree plantations. While they hope to have a complete business plan prepared for dandelion farmers, including instructions on the most efficient ways to irrigate, fertilize, and harvest the crop ready by 2020, they also caution that their research is based on a small scale production under perfect conditions. Growing the dandelions on a farm-size scale could result in some other unexpected challenges.
While nobody expects dandelions to become the primary source of rubber instantly, tire companies are excited at the prospect of a supplementary source to their current rubber supply. And who knows - perhaps in the not-too-distant future, these pesky weeds might even become the primary source, which means that you may find yourself in a car rolling on wheels made with flower-power!
Resources: euronews.com,sciencedaily.com, reuters.com