Searching for alternative natural rubber sources

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The tire industry plans to produce tires from dandelions

Today, the vast natural reserves of Hevea trees become more and more depleted. Below, we explain how the development of alternative natural rubber sources are gradually becoming a new reality in the tire industry.

Recently, Michelin announced its Zero Deforestation program, which aims at making a major shift toward development of alternative natural rubber (NR) sources and NR procurement. Michael Fraley, CEO of a rubber development company PanAridus LLC, outlines that the Zero Deforestation program means preserving the rainforest and finding sources of natural rubber other than tree Hevea Brasiliensis.

The bulk (about 90 percent) of all Hevea trees are in possession of small businesses or individuals in four countries of the world. Exploitation of the tree drastically affects rainforest and its resources may be soon depleted.

Katrina Cornish, the Chair and Ohio Endowed Professor for Bioemergent Materials at Ohio State University, asserts that ever more small farmers in Southeast Asia switch from rubber to palm oil, which is more lucrative to use because of its cheaper price. In addition, Hevea can grow on only particular small plots of land, which may come under threat today because of the climate change. Katrina Cornish says that the level of dependence on the crucial material which Hevea tree produces is insane and she calls for finding another sources which ensure a biological diversity.

Zero Deforestation program of Michelin stipulates that by all reasonable means, the group ensures that the natural rubber it uses comes exclusively from plantations that fully comply with the zero deforestation principles. These principles, in turn, ensure protection and preservation of primary forests, as well as protection and preservation of high conservation value and high carbon stock forests. Also, the group opted to use more diverse biomaterials as well as components which are alternative to natural rubber. Also, the group’s agenda comprises diminution of tire’s weight, increasing its durability, developing grooving and retreading surfaces and, most important, recycling both used and new materials in the process of production.

World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace warmly greet Michelin’s decision. Cecile Leuba from Greenpeace France says: “The announcement by the Michelin Group to commit to a zero deforestation natural rubber procurement policy sends a strong signal to the entire rubber sector: it will soon be more difficult to sell natural rubber that contributes to deforestation.”

Yet in 2013, Michelin started participating in the International Rubber Study Group’s sustainable natural rubber initiative, which was launched to ensure sustainable natural rubber procurement.

Bridgestone researches guayule for tire production

Bridgestone researches guayule for tire production

Among the industry majors, Bridgestone Americas has a well-performing sustainability program which includes research in both guayule and rubber dandelions. In 2015, these researches enabled to produce tires in which guayule rubber completely replaced Hevea. It is expected that guayule becomes available commercially by the early 2020s.

Another industry major, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., pointed out to the document on its webpage describing its commitment toward corporate social responsibility and sustainability mission. One of the main efforts of Cooper is its leadership in the Biomass Research and Development Initiative, in which its partners are PanAridus, Clemson University, Cornell University and the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2014, Cooper produced its first tires with guayule rubber components and keeps researching how it is possible to upgrade the technology.

Meanwhile, some major advances were achieved by Continental, which is the current leader in the research with the rubber dandelion (the plant is commonly known as a Russian dandelion). The company will invest 39 million USD to build a special research facility in Anklam, Germany. Continental’s dandelion rubber name is Taraxagum and it is expected to appear on the market in 5 to 10 years. Currently, the biggest hurdle which Continental needs to overcome is dandelion supply. Peter Zmolek, director of body compound and reinforcement development for Conti, asserts that social, economic and environmental advantages of rubber dandelions are enormous.

Cornish also said rubber dandelions enjoy an advantage in a time of climate change, and added that guayule—which grows only in hot, dry climates—should continue to have sufficient growing areas. “Both crops have a good future,” she said.

The described efforts by the tire industry are absolutely necessary and highly appreciated. However, as a consulting company specialized in tire recycling for more than 15 years, we also highly recommend the tire industry to increase their R&D efforts for using its own waste in the production of new tires. The tire recycling industry is continuously improving qualities of rubber powders derived from end-of-life tires. There is no excuse for the tire manufacturers not to use rubber powders in a vast range of tires without a loss of quality.

Article source: ERJ

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