The first-ever modern pilot system for the extraction of large quantities of tire rubber from dandelions is currently in the process of being built by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME, in cooperation with Continental. The pilot project is possible thanks to a number of important improvements to cultivation and production engineering over the past few years.
It’s been known for quite a long time that dandelions, in addition to being an excellent source of nutrition, and to possessing notable medicinal qualities, are an excellent source of latex rubber. The researchers think that the new pilot project is an important step towards the goal of a rubber-independent Europe — potentially, in the future, no longer having to rely on imports from tropical countries for the important resource.
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The joint project officially started at the beginning of October. The goal is to develop the production process over the next five years so that Continental can manufacture tires made from dandelion rubber. This is why molecular biologists at IME and the research department of the automotive supplier built a pilot facility in Münster that is capable of producing natural rubber by the ton. At the same time, they cultivate several hectares of a dandelion variety which is particularly rich in rubber. To optimize the raw material content and the properties of the blossom, the researchers concurrently grew new varieties with a higher proportion of rubber and biomass yield.
The first prototype test tires made with blends from dandelion-rubber are scheduled to be tested on public roads over the next few years. The natural product obtained in this manner exhibited the same quality as the conventional rubber from rubber trees that has been imported from subtropical countries and used in tire production. However unlike the conventional rubber, it could be harvested more cost-effectively, better cultivated and grown in Germany as a sustainable raw material — even on land areas not previously suited for agricultural crops.
“Through the most modern cultivation methods and optimization of systems technology, we have succeeded in manufacturing high-grade natural rubber from dandelions — in the laboratory. The time is now right to move this technology from the pilot project-scale to the industrial scale. We have found an expert partner in Continental, with whom we now want to create tires that are ready for production,” states Professor Dr Rainer Fischer, head of institute at IME in Aachen.
“We are investing in this highly promising materials development and production project because we are certain that in this way we can further improve our tire production over the long term,” explains Nikolai Setzer, the Continental managing director who is responsible for the tires division. “It’s because the rubber extraction from the dandelion root is markedly less affected by weather than the rubber obtained from the rubber tree. Based on its agricultural modesty, it holds entirely new potential — especially for cropland that is lying fallow today. Since we can grow it in much closer proximity to our production sites, we can further reduce both the environmental impact as well as our logistics costs by a substantial margin. This development project impressively demonstrates that, with regard to material development, we have not reached the end of our potential.”
“With this new technology, we can achieve a sustainable edge for the German automotive market. On the one hand, it makes the domestic economy less dependent on the importing of raw materials. On the other hand, it reduces the transportation routes, and thus improves the CO2 balance,” notes Dr Ing Reimund Neugebauer, President of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.
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