Forget rolling on rubber, could car drivers soon be travelling on tires made from dandelions? Teams of scientists are racing to breed a type of the yellow flower whose taproot has a milky fluid with tire-grade rubber particles in it. As Joanna Partridge reports, global tire makers are investing millions in research into a new tire source.
Gardeners consider it a weed. But dandelions could soon become a cash crop - and a source of rubber for vehicle tyres. Teams of scientists like here at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany are racing to breed a type of dandelion native to Kazakhstan. Its taproot contains a milky fluid which has tyre-grade rubber particles in it. Dirk Pruefer is head of the project. SOUNDBITE: Dirk Pruefer, Project Head, Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology in Greenhouses, saying (English): "One of the main challenges in dandelion research was to produce plants, novel plants that have an improved rubber content that has a good agronomic behaviour on the field. And that is why we're working since years on the breeding program to develop new traits in the plants, stabilised traits for example a stable rubber content." The tyre industry consumes about two-thirds of the world's natural rubber. Global tyre makers like industry leader Bridgestone and the fourth-biggest, Continental, are investing millions of dollars in this research. They're concerned about their reliance on rubber from trees in South East Asia. Worrying an uncontrollable fungus which has run riot on rubber plantations in Brazil could one day wreak havoc in Asia. Synthetic rubber made from petrochemicals hasn't provided a substitute. Tyres on passenger cars need between 10-40% natural rubber content so they can remain flexible at low temperatures and not crack - truck and aircraft tyres need even more. Dandelions look promising. A small trial by an American research team found they delivered rubber yields on a par with the best trees in Asia. SOUNDBITE: Dirk Pruefer, Project Head, Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology in Greenhouses, saying (English): "We have some good results. Our strategic partner Continental, they made a lot of testing tissues so see the quality of the material. And what you can see is that the quality is similar to that what they have originally done with the rubber from the rubber tree." Dandelions were used as a rubber source when trade with Asia collapsed during the Second World War. Now volatility in the rubber market has accelerated the search for alternatives. Rubber prices hit a record high in 2011 when weather hit supply, as demand grew. There's still lots of work to do. But in the future fields of yellow flowers which grow in even poor soil might help tyre makers to significantly reduce their costs.