US Air Force Seeks Sustainable Dandelion Supply Chain To Thwart “Rubber Apocalypse”

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The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company is leaving no stone unturned in its quest for a sustainable supply chain. The iconic maker of car tires is also among the many US manufacturers seeking more secure and sustainable sources for rubber, and it is zeroing in on the humble dandelion as an alternative to natural rubber from the Hevea tree. Yes, the dandelion.

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Back When Sustainable Rubber From Dandelions Was A Thing

The history of sustainable dandelion rubber goes back as least as far as World War II, when the US and other nations were suddenly cut off from the natural rubber supply chain in Asia. Natural dandelion sap had a brief moment as a rubber substitute during the war, most notably in Russia.

However, dandelion rubber never caught on in the US. “Sustainable” was not a key element in the supply chain lexicon back then, and the search for a quick Hevea substitute during the war focused on the nation’s young but influential petrochemical industry.

The Global Hunt For A Sustainable Rubber Alternative

Some researchers never gave up, and that’s a good thing. The global rubber industry is facing a triple whammy. A fungus is threatening the Hevea tree, and the impacts of climate change are wreaking havoc with the harvest. Meanwhile, manufacturers are rushing to capture the hearts and minds of the modern enviro-consumer by clearing petrochemicals out of their supply chains.

That appears to have given new hope for dandelion rubber fans. Ford Motor Company was among the first manufacturers to revisit dandelion rubber in the 21st century. In 2011, the company partnered with the Ohio State University lab of Dr. Katrina Cornish, where efforts have focused on the Buckeye Gold dandelion.

The Rubber Apocalypse Is Coming

Buckeye Gold is not your ordinary bane of suburban lawns. There are about 250 species of dandelions around the world, and this one is special. Its roots contain 10-15% high quality rubber, nearly identical in performance to Hevea-sourced rubber.

Back in 2016, the American Chemistry Society publication C&EN ran a profile on the Cornish lab and noted that Buckeye Gold came to Ohio State from Kazakhstan, under the official name of Taraxacum kok-saghyz.

It looks like all that hard work has paid off. Dr. Cornish is the Scientific Advisor to the American Sustainable Rubber company, which is marketing its dandelion rubber under the name T.K. Dandelion. Last November, the company was acquired by the global firm Hemp, Inc.

Hemp, Inc. notes that rubber is used in over 40,000 products and is also deemed a strategic material by the US Defense Logistics Agency. They also noted that signs of a rubber apocalypse are looming.

“This year (March, 2021), the U.S. imported $140 million in raw natural rubber. That’s a far cry from the $1.6 billion imported in 2017,” they observed, citing Dr. Cornish.

“We could be on the cusp of a rubber apocalypse,” she said.

The US Air Force Steps In

That brings us to the latest news from Goodyear. The company’s roots in Hevea rubber date back to the 19th century, and it looks like everything old is new again. Now the firm has turned to another natural source, and if you guessed Taraxacum kok-saghyz, run right out and buy yourself a cigar.

We’re reaching out to Goodyear to see if that’s the same TK that comes under the Hemp, Inc. umbrella, but for now let’s assume the company is on its own track. Goodyear is involved in a major new US Department of Defense project that that partners the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory with the companies bioMADE and Farmed Materials.

“Natural rubber has been classified as a strategic raw material that serves as a critical ingredient in military, aircraft and truck tires,” Goodyear explains, adding that “more than 90 percent of the world’s natural rubber is made from latex derived from rubber trees and is primarily sourced from tropical locations outside of the U.S.”

As described by Goodyear, Taraxacum kok-saghyz is more than just a special dandelion. So far about 2,500 plants have been analyzed for use in tire manufacturing, and TK is one of just a handful showing potential as a high performance substitute for Hevea.

To ice the supply chain cake, TK dandelions can grow in temperate climates found in many US states, and they can be harvested twice a year.

Sustainable Dandelion Rubber, Sooner Than You Think

Farmed Materials already has a head start on TK rubber in the form of pilot projects, and the influx of Defense Department cash will enable it to ramp up to the next level beginning now-ish.

A spring planting-harvesting cycle for 2022 is already in the works, at a farm located in Ohio. Goodyear is tasked with producing military aircraft tires from the harvest, and the US Air Force is on board with the test phase, to be carried out at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

Goodyear is also thinking ahead towards commercial applications, if all goes according to plan.

It’s Another Win-Win For The Planet, & EV Owners, Too

The introduction of another sustainable source for vehicle and aircraft tires could also help alleviate the problem of microparticles of petrochemicals that enter the environment through tire and road wear.

Goodyear and other industry stakeholders have been trying to get a handle on the problem through a research project called the Tire Industry Project. Clearing petrochemicals out of the rubber supply chain won’t solve the whole problem, but it should help.

The use of sustainable tire materials should be of particular interest to people who are concerned about carbon emissions and other pollutants from gasmobiles.

Zero emission electric vehicles are a big step in the right direction, but EV drivers should also be aware that the tires also need attention, as do other resource-consuming, energy-intensive elements that go into auto manufacturing.

Eco-conscious drivers who have the opportunity to walk, bike, or take mass transit can put their money where their mouth is by taking advantage of transportation alternatives, regardless of what comes out of their tailpipes.

It’s Death By A Thousand Cuts For The Petrochemical Industry

Russia’s murderous rampage through Ukraine has finally provided policy makers around the world with a geopolitical wake-up call of epic proportions.  The risks and hazards of outsourcing energy supply to a regime accused of a cascading series of war crimes up to and including genocide are all too evident, and then there’s global warming, air pollution, water pollution, and soil pollution on top of the fossil energy pile.

Fossil fuels are only part of the issue, though. Plastics and other fossil-based materials and chemicals are the other part. Petrochemical stakeholders are already under threat from the green chemistry movement, and now they are impacted by the increasing isolation of Russia from the global petrochemical supply chain.

It looks like the Goodyear project will take a few years to bear fruit. In the meantime, new plant-based plastic materials are entering the market at a steady clip, and next-generation biobased materials are another up-and-coming threat to the petrochemical status quo.

In addition, the newly emerging market for green hydrogen has already stretched beyond hydrogen fuel to challenge petrochemical stakeholders, particularly in the area of ammonia production.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: The US Air Force could apply next-generation sustainable dandelion rubber tires to its legendary Thunderbirds team, eventually (photo credit: Thunderbirds at over Columbus Air Force Base, MS,  US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jake Jacobsen).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3301 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey