Is the future of tyres in a flower?Comment on this story
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 regard the yellow flowers as pesky intruders in their gardens rather than a promising source of rubber for tyres.
“People just think of it as a horrible weed and 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 No.4 player Continental believe they are in for rich pickings and are backing such research to the tune of millions of dollars.
Early signs are good. A small-scale trial by a US research team found the dandelions delivered per-hectare rubber yields 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 United States, where they can grow even in poor soil.
And they could have some interesting modifications. For instance, German researchers have bred the plants to grow to up to a foot (30 cm) in height, dwarfing many of their backyard cousins. They are also developing the dandelions with upright rather than flat-growing leaves - just so harvesting machines have something to grab on to.
The tyre industry, which consumes about two-thirds of the world's natural rubber, has long felt uneasy about its complete reliance on rubber-tree tapping in a handful of Southeast Asian nations which account for most of the $25 billion in annual natural-rubber output.
More than 100 years since the invention of synthetic rubber from petrochemicals, global road and air traffic still depends on the unique properties of plant-based rubber - which to date cannot be replicated by the man-made material.
Passenger car tyres need to have 10-40 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 all attempts to run plantations in Brazil - where the rubber tree originates - might one day wreak havoc in Southeast Asia.
The volatility of the rubber market has added urgency to the search for alternative crops. Rubber prices surged to a record high of more than $6 per kg in early 2011 - when weather-related supply shortages in Southeast Asia coincided with strong demand growth and speculative rubber traders betting on further gains.
But prices slumped to multi-year lows of $2 this year on expectations of slowing economic growth in China, the world's largest rubber market.
The volatility has been compounded by the fact that it takes about seven years to develop a new plantation and, during this development process, farmers tend to react to price changes by increasing or cutting their acreage.
Tyre makers took a lesson from history in the search for a home-grown feedstock.
When trade with Asia collapsed during the Second World War, the Kazakh dandelion, also called Russian dandelion, was cultivated in the United States, Europe and Soviet Union for an emergency supply of rubber despite meagre yields.
After the war, however, trade links were restored and companies returned to the more cost-efficient Asian plantations.
It has only been in recent years that dandelions have been re-examined, given the fungus fears and price volatility and also advances in bioengineering that many believe have made the flowers an economically viable source of rubber.