To most folks, the dandelion is nothing but a weed – and a particularly annoying one at that. Heck, I spend much of the spring digging the dang things up out of my yard to little avail; year after year, they survive blistering summer heat waves, torrential rains, and frigid winters to return in ever greater numbers. If left alone, they’d consume what little green space I’ve got.
That makes them the perfect source material for light truck tires, apparently.
Huh? Say again?
You heard me. In conjunction with The Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology, the Julius Kuehn-Institute, and EKUSA, Continental Tire is now making and testing car and light truck tire tread made out of 100% “dandelion natural rubber” polymer, with plans to begin manufacturing consumer-grade road tires made from dandelion-derived rubber within the next five to 10 years.
“In agricultural terms, dandelions are an undemanding plant, growing in moderate climates, even in the northern hemisphere, and can be cultivated on land not suitable for food production,” noted Dr. Carla Recker, who heads up the Continental team involved in the development of this super material, in a statement.
“This means that rubber production is conceivable near our tire factories, for instance, and the significantly shorter transport routes would also reduce CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions,” she said.
Dr. Peter Zmolek, director of research and development of passenger and light truck tires for Continental Tire the Americas, added that the company produced and tested dandelion tire tread – given the unwieldy name Taraxagum – back in 2014, testing it in summer and winter conditions on Continental’s proving grounds in Germany and Sweden.
Now, the dandelions Continental is using aren’t the same ones growing in my yard (or anyone else’s) apparently; they’re a unique Russian species, indeed the only dandelion variant that can be used as an alternative source for natural rubber production as its roots contain the natural rubber latex – the source for natural rubber used in tires, meaning supply will be steadier and easier to control leading to greater price stability, Zmolek said.
Here are a few factoids to chew that illuminate why these “dandelion tires” could be a huge boom to the global tire industry:
- Between 10% and 30% of a car tire includes natural rubber, Continental noted, while truck tires can include proportionally higher amounts.
- Today, natural rubber is still obtained almost exclusively from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) which can only be cultivated in what is referred to as the “rubber belt” around the equator, a fraction of the world’s land surface.
- Global demand for natural rubber is set to rise in the next few years, yet the growth cycle of a rubber tree is roughly seven years before it can start producing latex that can be used in rubber production.
- This rubber made from this latex is critical to tires as it has unique performance attributes that can’t be replicated in synthetic rubber; thus natural rubber is a must for tire production.
- As a result, market demand is outpacing production capacities, a situation that, in the past, has led to unpredictable price volatility.
- The Russian species of dandelion changes all of that as it can thrive in a large part of the world.
- The growth cycle for the Russian dandelion is approximately one year, versus nearly seven years for the typical rubber tree.
- Most of the dandelions Continental is working with are being “optimized” for tire making without the use of genetic engineering.
- Here’s the big supply chain benefit: Transporting rubber from South America or West Africa to North America and Europe for manufacturing is a long and costly journey that also contributes significantly to the output of CO2.
- If this part of the tire supply chain can be consolidated to agricultural zones of the Americas and Europe, the economic and carbon emission reduction benefits would be a “significant boon” to the tire industry, Continental stressed.
Continental’s Zmolek (seen at right) added that the initial tests run so far demonstrate that the tires the company made and tested so far from Taraxagum show an equivalent “property profile” when compared to tires made from conventional natural rubber.
But while the potential is great, significant hurdles must be overcome before the use of this natural material can be fully utilized,” he emphasized.
“For one, synchronizing the agronomy process – planting, growing and harvesting – to continually changing demand presents a significant challenge,” Zmolek noted.
Nevertheless, his team at Continental extracted several kilos of dandelion-derived rubber [Editor’s note: “kilo” is short for “kilogram,” and one kilo equals about 2.2 pounds] from a small lab system to build these Taraxagum tires.
Thus the potential is there to put cars, light trucks – and maybe even big rigs – on tires made partially from the much-maligned dandelion.
Pretty neat development for a plant long dismissed as nothing but a weed.