Ludwig Burger Muenster, Germany
DUTCH biologist Ingrid van der Meer often meets with disbelief when she talks about her work on dandelions and how it could secure the future of road transport.
The reaction is understandable, given most people view the yellow flowers as intruders in their gardens rather than a promising source of tyre rubber. “People… ask how can you get enough material for tyres from just a small root,” she said.
Her research team is competing with others across the world to breed a type of dandelion native to Kazakhstan whose taproot yields a milky fluid with tyre-grade rubber particles in it.
Global tyre makers such as industry leader Bridgestone and fourth-largest player Continental believe they are in for rich pickings and are backing such research to the tune of millions of dollars.
A small-scale trial by a US research team found the dandelions delivered rubber yields per hectare on a par with the best rubber-tree plantations in tropical Asia.
So within a decade, rather than being a backyard bane like their wild cousins, the new flowers might be seen in neat rows in hundreds of thousands of acres across Europe and the US, where they can grow even in poor soil.
And they could have interesting modifications. For instance, German researchers have bred the plants to grow to up to 30cm in height, dwarfing their backyard cousins.
The tyre industry, which consumes two-thirds of all natural rubber, has long felt uneasy about its complete reliance on rubber-tree tapping in a handful of south-east Asian nations that account for most of the $25 billion (R266bn) in annual natural rubber output.
More than 100 years since the invention of synthetic rubber from petrochemicals, road and air traffic still depends on plant-based rubber, whose properties cannot yet be replicated by the man-made material.
Passenger car tyres need to have 10 percent to 40 percent natural rubber content to allow them to stay flexible at low temperatures and to keep tiny cracks from growing. Truck and aircraft tyres need an even higher percentage.
Tyre makers’ worst fear is that an uncontrollable fungus that has choked plantations in Brazil, where the rubber tree originates, might one day wreak havoc in south-east Asia.
The volatility of the rubber market has added urgency to the search for alternative crops. Rubber prices surged to a record high of $6 a kilogram in early 2011, when weather-related supply shortages in south-east Asia coincided with strong demand growth and speculative rubber traders betting on further gains.
But prices slumped to lows of $2 this year on expectations of slowing growth in China, the largest rubber market.
Adding to the volatility is the fact that it takes about seven years to develop a new plantation and, during this development, most farmers react to price changes by increasing or cutting their acreage.
Any impact on prices would have huge implications for tyre makers. Another concern about the current market is that rubber-supplying countries, led by Thailand and Indonesia, will not have the acreage to keep up with long-term growth in tyre demand.
All contenders in the dandelion quest say that getting the farming right is as important as mastering the genetics.
Katrina Cornish, the research director of a project at Ohio State University, said by the end of the US programme in 2020, her team would have drawn up a detailed business plan and beginners’ guide for future dandelion farmers.
And Cornish sees no shortage of farmers ready to seize the opportunity in Ohio.
The typical reaction to her work is: “When can I start growing it?” – Reuters