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It’s Sappy – Ford’s plan for Dandelions

Cleantech chemistry doesn’t know where you, dear reader, are sitting right now. But it’s quite likely that if you look out your window at the nearest patch of green, you will see some of these ubiquitous weeds:

Not the Russian variety, but you get the idea. Credit: C&EN

But as gardeners will tell you, it’s only a weed if it appears where it is not wanted. But dandelions ARE wanted in Wooster, Ohio, where a team of agricultural researchers are right this very moment tending to a crop of Taraxacum kok-saghyz or Russian Dandelions. The milky sap of the plant’s taproot contains a high-quality rubber that mirrors the performance characteristics of the Brazilian rubber tree, source of almost all natural rubber.
 Researchers at The Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center will provide samples of rubber to Ford Motor Company. Ford says it is interested in blending the rubber with various plastics and using the flexible materials in auto interiors for cup holders, floormats, and trim.
What Ford does not mention, however,  is that the research picks up on an interesting piece of U.S. industrial history.  
As the curators of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Meyers Florida explain on their website:

During WWI the price of rubber rose dramatically.  Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone were concern with this national issue.  Edison planned to discover a domestic source of rubber from a latex (a white milky sap) producing plant.  The three friends formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in 1927 and the lab was built in 1928 to support rubber research and development. [By the way, you can visit this lab]

By 1929, Ford was convinced that he and his friends had found the answer in a common yellow weed called… Goldenrod. But as a Time Magazine article from that year points out in a footnote, “Mr. Edison has found traces of rubber in 1,200 U. S. plants, of 16,000 he has examined.” At the time, the article goes on to say “Neither Inventor Edison nor anyone in his organization could guess yet at manufacturing costs or how many acres of goldenrod would produce a ton of rubber.”

The search for plant-based sources of natural rubber that could be produced in or near the States was revived again in World War II when the Axis powers took control of rubber plantations in southeast Asia, and the U.S. was again in short supply of the material for its war efforts. That research included looking at the Russian dandelion. But during the war, as chemists know, research scientists perfected processes for making large quantities of synthetic rubber.

Still, the need for natural rubber remains – like for aircraft tires. And there also remains a shortage of the stuff.  OSU’s Program of Excellence in Natural Rubber Alternatives explains ”Natural rubber supplies are becoming increasingly unstable as a result of rapidly expanding growth in China and India, decline in rubber production due to industrialization in Southeast Asia, and increasing utilization of natural rubber by former Soviet Bloc countries.”

Which is why the folks at OSU’s Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center sound so darned optimistic about rubber from dandelions: 

 This industry will create more than $130 million in total revenues and create 165 jobs in Ohio in the near term in the state’s agricultural and rubber-products sectors. In the longer term, a new industry centered in Ohio, will expand to address this very important national need. Most of the funding is targeted to building a pilot-scale processing facility on OARDC’s Wooster campus that will generate 20 metric tons of rubber a year for industrial testing.

1 Comment

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  • May 26th 201114:05
    by Bob Buntrock

    I’m quite familiar with the efforts of Edison, Ford, and Firestone to aleviate the WW I rubber shortage. At the time, the primary source of Havea latex was from Brazil and German U-boats were hindering shipments of latex. All three had winter homes in Florida and Edison, a chemist, was commisioned to find a latex substitute from plants that could be grown in the US. Edison grew an extensive collection of tropical and semitropical plants at his Ft. Meyers gardens (yes, definitely worth a visit even after hurricane damage) and concentrated on euphoribias and other succulent latex producers.

    Several oil and petrochemical companies became interested in latex producing plants as a source of biohydrocarbons and other fuels. In addition to searches in Chemcial Abstracts, searches in Biological Abstracts were also rewarding. In the twenties, Edison published several artciles on his work in growing latex plants and isolation and properties of the latex.

    Another solution to the rubber latex problem was that someone smuggled several Hevea spalings out of Brazil and established Hevea colonies in Indonesia and SE Asia. These became the cheif source of latex just in time to be captured by the Japanese which spawned the synthetic rubber effort (as well as tire rationing in WW II).

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