Of deserts and dandelions

Aug. 7, 2015
Possible alternatives to natural rubber are growing

When natural rubber prices reached a 30-year high of $2.80/lb. in February 2011, tire manufacturers responded with an unprecedented string of price increases. Since most of the world’s supply is located in Southeast Asia, doomsday theorists predicted shortages that would remind people of the rationing that took place during World War II. Fortunately, a number of factors have stabilized the market, and natural rubber prices have leveled off.

But that doesn’t mean we can sit back and relax. Natural rubber is still an agricultural product that can only be produced in limited climates. Therefore, it is subjected to the same threats of disease and the lack of or abundance of rain. Market stability can be shortlived when the environment plays such a vital role, which is why tire companies are constantly looking for alternatives.

A few years ago, Bridgestone and Cooper started researching the potential of guayule, a shrub-like plant that thrives in areas where rain is limited and heat is not. Arid regions like western Texas and southern Arizona are ideal for the production of latex that can be used in tires, wetsuits, medical gloves, and other rubber products. We are not yet at the point where the industry can start dreaming about abandoning traditional sources of natural rubber, but the experimental phase is moving toward commercial operations so there is hope.

Continental recently received the prestigious Joseph von Fraunhofer Prize for its collaborative research on the use of Russian dandelions as a source of natural rubber.  “It is an undemanding plant, even in the Northern Hemisphere, and can be cultivated on land not suitable for food production,” says Dr. Carla Recker, who led the team in the development phase. Like guayule, Russian dandelions are not completely reliant on a cartel of growers in a small geographical area, so the potential for reducing the global dependence on natural rubber is promising.

Truck tire prices have leveled off in the past few years for a number of reasons. Besides the stability in natural rubber prices, the increasing supply of low-cost offshore imports is giving domestic manufacturers incentive to remain competitive. Lower oil and natural gas prices are also having a positive impact. And efficiency improvements from the use of advanced technology cannot be overlooked.

As encouraging as these developments have been, the industry is still just a natural disaster or major climate shift away from another global shortage. And while we can be encouraged by the developments for alternatives, the dependence on the cartel of small countries in Southeast Asia has not diminished.

The sky is not falling and chaos is not getting ready to flap its wings in Brazil and set off a tornado in Texas. That being said, the delicate environmental balance that preserves natural rubber production is still not expected to change. A few years ago, the fleets that already had systems in place to maximize the life of their tires and retreads didn’t feel the pinch as much as those that treated them like throwaway items.

It’s also important to remember that the flood of low-cost offshore imports is dependent on the same factors as domestic production, so future global shortages of natural rubber will not spare anyone from the pain of years past. Guayule and dandelions provide some degree of hope, but the market can still change in the time it takes a butterfly to flap its wings.

Kevin Rohlwing can be reached at [email protected]

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