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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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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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