HOUSTON – At a test track in Texas last month, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. researchers discovered they are getting close to accomplishing a feat that eluded the great American inventor Thomas Edison.
The tires in their road test outside of San Antonio were among the first made with rubber extracted from guayule (pronounced why-YOU-lee), a desert shrub native to the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico. Commercial development could upend an industry that relies on oil-based synthetics and natural rubber from the Hevea tree, supplied almost exclusively by five countries in the Asian tropics.
“Without natural rubber, the tire industry cannot operate,” said Chuck Yurkovich, a senior vice president at Cooper, based in Findlay, Ohio.
With demand set to double in the next three decades, fueled by increased car demand in China and India, the tire makers who use 70 percent of Hevea rubber output are looking for alternatives. The Texas track tests last month showed tires with various parts made from guayule worked as well as those already on the market. In 2017, project researchers plan to complete a prototype tire that uses guayule in all the rubber components.
For more than a century, U.S. scientists and entrepreneurs have tried to come up with a way to end America’s dependence on imported rubber. Among them was Edison, dubbed the Wizard of Menlo Park, New Jersey, for creating a light bulb in the late 1800s along with hundreds of patents on things like the phonograph and motion-picture camera. Even the government got involved, with a project during World War II to develop a viable substitute.
While tires today contain some rubber derived from petroleum, natural rubber is an essential ingredient because it is more resistant to heat, cracking and fatigue, especially when used in heavy-duty tires on planes and trucks.
The government still considers natural rubber a “critical agricultural material,” providing a $6.9 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to the guayule project. The USDA is sequencing the guayule genome and is working with Cornell University researchers to identify genes responsible for key traits, such as increased rubber yield, said Colleen McMahan, the department’s lead scientist on domestic natural rubber.
Unlike Hevea trees, which can take seven years to start producing rubber and have to be tapped by hand like a maple tree, guayule is a shrub that grows for two years before it is bailed, crushed and processed to extract latex, said Mike Fraley, founder and chief executive officer of Panaridus, a closely held Arizona company specializing in the desert plant.
While rubber from Hevea is plentiful and cheap now, that has not always been the case. It was three times more expensive in early 2011, as car sales surged in the U.S. and China and farmers lost output in Southeast Asia, including from flood damage in Thailand, the largest supplier. The global benchmark traded in Tokyo has fallen 19 percent this year to ¥174 a kilogram. Futures reached a record ¥535.7 in February 2011.
The threat of disease adds to the supply concern. In Brazil, where Hevea trees originated, leaf blight is a constant scourge that keeps the country’s rubber output at less than 1 percent of world supply. The fungus hasn’t yet made it to plantations in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, where 70 percent of Hevea rubber is produced, but disease and drought are a looming threat, Yurkovich said.
Then there is the risk of international conflict. During World War II, for instance, Japan captured regions producing 90 percent of the globe’s natural rubber. That spurred U.S. passage of the Emergency Rubber Project, including the creation of guayule plantations, and it accelerated development of synthetic rubber made from oil.
Bridgestone Corp., a Japanese tire maker, is studying guayule rubber at an Arizona research center that opened a year ago. Scientists at Ohio State University are working with companies to commercialize rubber extracted from the root of the Russian dandelion. Closely held Yulex Corp. already makes guayule rubber for Patagonia Inc. to replace neoprene in wetsuits.
In anticipation of commercial sales, Panaridus will soon announce plans to build processing facilities, according to CEO Fraley. The company has seed for 100,000 acres, enough to meet 16 percent of U.S. natural rubber demand, he said.
Panaridus plans to contract for its guayule with farmers in the southwest, many of whom are looking for a new desert crop after a steep decline in the local cotton industry. Guayule can be mechanically harvested 18 months after planting and regrown from the stump annually for several more years, Fraley said. Along with rubber, the company plans to generate income selling guayule resin for adhesives, flavors and fragrances, and the biomass can be converted into fuel.
“The beauty is, there is no waste,” Fraley said.