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Biofuels guayule for renewable rubber

Published on December 26th, 2013 | by Tina Casey

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This Delicate Flower Is A Stepping Stone To Energy Independence



If you find it hard to wrap your head around the idea that a shrub bearing pea-sized flowers could have anything to do with energy independence, consider guayule. This weedy little plant thrives in the arid climate of the Southwest, and it could provide the US with yet another sustainable source of domestic biofuel while also replacing petroleum as a feedstock for synthetic rubber in tire manufacturing.

We last checked in on guayule over the summer, when ARPA-E provided a grant of $5.7 million to a new partnership for developing guayule biofuel (ARPA-E is the Department of Energy’s transformative technology funding agency).

Given all the activity surrounding weedy-feedstock biofuels (camelina, much?), the biofuel angle isn’t too surprising. What’s new and different is the idea that one plant could double as a biofuel feedstock and substitute for synthetic rubber, too.

guayule for energy independence

Guayule (cropped) courtesy of USDA.

Guayule Instead Of Synthetic Rubber

The ARPA-E grant involves a company called Yulex, which is aside from its work in biofuels is already showing off the high performance qualities of guayule-based material with the launch of a new guayule wetsuit produced by Patagonia. The guayule wetsuit, which replaces neoprene, made its debut in Japan last December and is now available in the US.

The latest development involves the Arizona guayule specialist PanAridus, which is replacing Yulex in a guayule research consortium funded by the US Department of Agriculture to the tune of $6.9 million.

The consortium is focused on producing guayule-based polymers for tire manufacturing. It will also be evaluating the biofuel potential of guayule bagasse (bagasse is the straw-like stuff left over when other products are extracted from a plant).

Along with PanAridus the consortium includes Cooper Tire & Rubber Company as the grant leader, with Arizona State University and the Agriculture Departments’s Agricultural Research Service, which has been all over guayule:

Perhaps the single most valuable gift the desert-dwelling guayule plant offers us is its superb natural latex. The white, rubber-rich substance, extracted and purified from this southwestern U.S. native shrub (Parthenium argentatum), is ideal for making high-quality gloves, medical devices, and other in-demand natural rubber products.

Importantly, latex from guayule (pronounced why-YOU-lee) is free of the proteins responsible for the sometimes-deadly latex allergies caused by the most widely used natural-rubber source, the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis.

What Is Energy Independence Anyways?

Speaking of energy independence, we just caught wind of a new series from Enterprises TV called Energy Independence Series. It will be distributed by FOX News among others, but before that FOX connection makes the hairs on the back of your neck start to tingle, keep in mind that Enterprises also offers a full slate of  sustainability-related programming.

So, that should be interesting. We’re going to take a look at the series when we get a chance (and if you have a chance to check it out, drop us a line in the comment thread), but in the mean time let’s agree that it’s time to take a really close look at what we mean by energy independence, keeping in mind that energy feedstocks, whether fossil or non-fossil, are used to manufacture chemicals and products as well as fuel.

In that context, while the recent achievements of the domestic fossil fuel industry are mighty impressive, the risks and impacts that fossil fuel harvesting has been creating in local communities is a pretty clear demonstration that “energy independence” as practiced today is not just a constructive goal, but a destructive one as well.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • jburt56

    And now for Scotch Broom!!

    • Bob_Wallace

      I know where you could get a bunch of that and people would thank you.
      And if you’re open to some Pampas grass as well….

      • jburt56

        Biomass gasification tech does the lot!!

  • Marion Meads

    When grown only for fuel, guayule may not be profitable. However, when grown as a source of superior non-hypoallergenic latex rubber, then the biofuel component from the bagasse leftover after latex extraction, it becomes profitable.

  • agelbert

    Thank you Tina. I believe the prudent use of plants, because many of them grow so fast, is the answer to the replacement of all plastics, chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, synthetic rubber and pharmaceuticals now derived from petrochemicals.

    I’m sure you are aware that the Russians have a very large sized cultivar of Dandelion that they grow to extract latex from. Tests are going on in Texas to that effect too.

    My favorite all around angiosperm is Lemna Minor (duckweed). Nothing but algae grows faster, it is nearly 40% starch, grows happily in shallow ponds on pig feces (it cleans the water of nitrates so the water can be used over and over again), grows from Siberia to the tropics, wastes no energy on large root systems or stalks so most of it is photosynthetic solar cell and, unlike algae, it is easy to dry.

    Here is my three part article you are free to pass on in whole, or any part, with or without attribution.

    Duckweed, the plant that may save mankind by enabling our species to live symbiotically, instead of parasitically, with the biosphere.

    • Marion Meads

      Unfortunately, more than 95% of the energy that the duckweed receives from the sun is used to evaporating the water instead of converting sunlight energy into fuel. Nothing biological beats the solar PV when converting sunlight into useful energy.

      • agelbert

        “more than 95% of the energy that the duckweed receives from the sun is used to evaporating the water instead of converting sunlight energy into fuel”

        Sure, but you don’t have to manufacture duckweed in a factory, do you? I certainly don’t think duckweed should compete with PV at all. I think it has a role in chemurgy, biofuels, plastics and other carbohydrate based hydrocarbon sustainable replacements.

        In my articles I point out that ethanol made from duckweed, as proven in a pilot study by Chinese and Rutgers University scientists, can be cheaper, as well as being carbon neutral (unlike fossil fuels) than fossil fuels as long as crude oil is priced at $72 a barrel or more.

        http://www.rutgers.edu/about-rutgers/make-way-duckweed

        And yes, they have, in North Carolina, already established a recommended duckweed growing and water cleaning perpetual cycle by catching the runoff from hog farms, fertilizing the duckweed with it, and thereby reusing the cleaned water (avoiding eutrophication pollution in waterways from nitrates).
        It’s a win-win because duckweed can also be fed to hogs and chickens as well as being pelletized for biofuel.
        All that is even before its massive potential as ethanol fuel from duckweed refineries the Chinese are planning to build.

        Duckweed is very nutritious and can be feed to humans as a cheap supplementary staple to avoid malnutrition and diseases associated with poor vitamin and mineral intake.

        • Marion Meads

          Another fast growing species that is worthy of study is the Azolla, is also commonly called duckweed fern, but is different than the true duckweed because Azolla is a nitrogen fixer. It can literally use the sunlight to convert nitrogen gas into organic fertilizer. I have used it in my research where we grow azolla in between rows of transplanted rice to use the sunlight to convert N2 into nitrogen fertilizer. Then before the rice canopy closes in, we incorporate the Azolla into the soil where organic nitrogen fertilizer is slowly released. Right now we are using fossil fuels to make nitrogen fertilizer through the Haber-Bosch process.

          You can read more about it here: http://theazollafoundation.org/

          • agelbert

            [img]http://www.pic4ever.com/images/thankyou.gif[/img]

            I’ll read about Azolla. It sounds wonderful!

            By the way, are you aware of what Will Allen has accomplished?

            Will Allen Urban Farming Revolution

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