Reposted with update and new photos from Gas2.
[Scroll down for update] The guayule math works like this: If the US imports 100 percent of its natural rubber, and it takes about one barrel of oil to make enough petro-rubber for one typical tire, then that’s all you need to know about why the Obama Administration has been peeling off numerous dollar bills in pursuit of a natural rubber crop that can be grown sustainably on domestic shores, namely, guayule.
That’s pronounced why-you-lee, by the way. For the record, other sources use the figure of seven gallons of oil per tire, so let’s just split it down the middle and say that the tire industry soaks up an awful lot of oil.
If it all works out, this shrubby little plant will fulfill two big goals that the US has been pursuing. One is to reduce dependence on petroleum, whether imported or domestic. While much attention has been focused on the carbon-reducing aspect of cutting loose from petroleum fuel, the policy also impacts the production of petro-chemicals, plastics, and other synthetic products derived from fossil fuels (go tell that to Exxon, by the way).
The other goal is to ensure a steady domestic supply of critical materials, especially regarding clean technology and fossil fuel alternatives.
Did you know that natural rubber accounts for the second-largest commodity import to the US after petroleum — and it’s one of the top five natural rubber importers globally? We didn’t know either of these things, but now that we know, it’s pretty clear why our tax dollars are paying for the guayule experiment.
Actually, it’s become somewhat of an international race. Guayule first crossed our radar over at Gas2’s sister site, CleanTechnica, when we noticed that a European consortium is looking into US guayule as a natural alternative to petro-rubber (for that matter, it looks like dandelion tires really are a thing, but we’ll save that for another story).
No, Really, Why Guayule?
Other natural alternatives to rubber trees have been explored — dandelions for example — but guayule offers a number of advantages as a commercial crop for the US market.
For that, we turn to a company called PanAridus, which has partnered with the departments of Agriculture and Energy in Arizona to develop a strain of guayule that produces a polymer identical to that of the rubber tree grown in tropical regions.
Guayule is native to the US, where it thrives in the Sonoran Desert region. Here’s a snippet of information emailed to us by a rep for the company:
Guayule is a drought tolerant plant that uses half the acre feet of water than cotton and two-thirds less than alfalfa. If Arizona exchanged its 300,000 acres of cotton and alfalfa for guayule, it would save 20% of the state’s water usage.
We’re also told that the naturally occurring turpines in guayule keep bugs away, enabling it to be grown with fewer pesticides than a typical commercial crop in the southwest.
In terms of overall sustainability, guayule is a multi-use, “zero waste” crop. After the rubber is extracted, the leftover biomass can be used as fuel or to extract biochemicals.
We Built This New US Natural Rubber Industry!
As far as tax dollars go, the US Department of Agriculture has been exploring the merits of guayule as a commercial crop for a while now, and the Department of Energy’s cutting edge ARPA-E funding division awarded a $6.9 million grant to a guayule tire development partnership including the Cooper Tire & Rubber Company and PanAridus.
In case you’re wondering why we bring this up right now, it looks like guayule is ready for its closeup.
We hear that the new tires are being publicly unveiled in Texas any minute now, so stay tuned.
Update: And yes, the great unveiling took place on August 20. The new tire is not made entirely of guayule (that’s the 2017 goal), but according to PanAridus, the ones used at the unveiling were “the first to use guayule in multiple tire components without losing any of the performance seen in tires made with Hevea.”
PanAridus also notes that within the past two years, the company has gone from sending packets of guayule rubber by mail to shipping it by the bale. Its proprietary seed and mechanized seeding process have shortened the initial growth cycle of guayule to 18-24 months, and PanAridus apparently has enough seed laid by to plant 100,000 acres, which could potentially provide 16 percent of the US rubber market.
For those of you keeping score at home, the guayule project is a Biomass Research and Development Initiative spearheaded by Cooper Tire and supported by the US Energy and Agriculture departments. Along with PanAridus, other partners include Clemson and Cornell universities.
PanAridus is also providing guayule rubber to a consortium based at Ohio State University, which has apparently attracted the interest of the Ford Motor Company.
Photos (cropped) via PanAridus.