Green Matter: Another rubber revolution in the making?

Rubber may not be the first thing that leaps to mind when words like 'innovation', 'bio' or possibly 'dandelion' enter the conversation.  Yet rubber, too, is quietly and, in its own way, making a stir in the renewable resources discussion.

Take, for example, the recent announcement made by Versalis, a global leader in elastomers and a subsidiary of Eni, and Yulex Corporation, an agricultural-based biomaterials company. These companies are forming a strategic partnership to manufacture guayule-based bio rubber materials and will launch an industrial production complex in Southern Europe.

Guayule (Parthenium argentatum) is a native North American renewable, non-food crop that requires little water usage, no pesticides and offers an alternative source of natural rubber that can be locally produced. Also, tire company Cooper is collaborating with Yulex, on researching a tire-grade rubber from the plant. Guayule

Another tire manufacturer, Bridgestone Corp., announced last year that research had "produced promising results indicating that the Russian dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz) can become a commercially viable, renewable source of high-quality, tire-grade rubber." The company also claims to have produced polyisoprene synthetic rubber from isoprene derived from biomass, a first step toward replacing petrochemical raw materials with sustainable biological raw materials in the production of synthetic rubber.

And in the Netherlands, tire manufacturer Apollo Vredestein successfully produced tires made of from natural rubber from both the Russian dandelion and from guayule. Before being taken into production, the tires will first undergo extensive testing over the coming months. The tires were developed within the scope of the EU-PEARLS project, the four-year European project, which was established precisely with the aim of developing an entire production and application chain for guayule and Russian dandelion latex and rubber in Europe.

A new supply of natural rubber

This renewed interest in 'bio' rubber might be viewed as part of the 'green' trend sweeping the chemical and polymer industry. There is, however, a far more basic reason behind the efforts to develop alternative sources of natural rubber: the demand for natural rubber currently outstrips supply. Natural rubber is a vital commodity of huge economic significance. Its importance in the transportation industry cannot be overstated: the single major global consumer of rubber is the tire industry, with large tires on aircraft, tractors and earthmoving equipment being largely made of natural rubber. However, natural rubber is also vital in a host of other industries, including construction and footwear.

Currently, the entire global supply of natural rubber comes from Southeast Asia. Hence an urgent need is felt by rubber-consuming industries around the world to develop what the EU-PEARLS consortium called "a strategic fallback option, in case current threats to Hevea rubber become reality: South American Leaf Blight, climate change, or high labor costs," to safeguard supply.

What about synthetics?
In the first quarter of the twentieth century the price of natural rubber rose, as demand accelerated. Rubber had become a major ingredient in a wide range of products, such as valves, wiring, tires, hoses and seals. Two World Wars pushed global rubber consumption to new heights as the defense industry went into overdrive to

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