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Cooper Tire and BRDI consortium partners report significant progress on grant to develop guayule polymer for tires

At its recent annual meeting in Albany, Calif., the public-private consortium behind the Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) grant, “Securing the Future of Natural Rubber—an American Tire and Bioenergy Platform from Guayule,” reported several key advancements emerging from the group’s work over the past year.

Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, working as the lead agency in the grant, announced that its scientists have reached a key milestone toward the goal of producing, by mid-2017, a concept tire in which all of the natural and synthetic rubber is replaced by guayule-based polymers. Guayule is a shrub that is grown primarily in the southwestern United States and contains rubber that can be processed for use in tires. (Earlier post.)

The 100% guayule-based concept tire will undergo extensive technical evaluation following its production. Concurrently, Cooper will continue studies on potential commercialization of guayule-based tires for the future.

To date, Cooper has completed a number of tire builds, iterative work that includes the replacement of both Hevea and synthetic rubber with guayule in various components, and then testing each build for overall performance. At the BRDI annual meeting, Cooper announced that it has completed this process on nearly all tire components, and has tested these tires with promising results.

We have nearly finished our work on developing guayule-based tire components and have tested these tires to assure a full performance evaluation. The results are highly promising. We have proven that we can replace traditional polymers with guayule in certain components, and that tires made from these components perform equal to conventional tires. We are optimizing the use of guayule formulations to develop not only a full guayule tire, but we will also evaluate guayule blends in certain components where an advantage has been shown to exist

—Chuck Yurkovich, Cooper’s Senior Vice President of Global Research & Development

Another grant consortium partner, the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA-ARS), announced at the BRDI annual meeting that it has completed the most extensive irrigation study ever done on guayule.

Growing guayule in desert regions requires judicious management of irrigation water for maximizing yields while minimizing water usage. The study, which began in 2012 and involved two guayule fields in Maricopa, Ariz., compared surface irrigation and subsurface drip irrigation to determine the most effective method to drive higher rubber yield per acre. The final harvest was completed in March 2015, and ARS concluded that drip irrigation provided an enormous benefit over other irrigation techniques and led to improved yields.

The information obtained is critical to developing optimum guayule farming techniques to support a potential future guayule industry. ARS is developing a web-based application that will allow farmers to easily use the data to maximize their yields.

ARS also reported on its work under the grant to sequence the guayule genome. This effort is geared to position the crop to benefit from modern breeding and genetics tools reported by the Cornell University consortium partners. The molecular efforts are designed to advance improvements in terms of yield, resistance to disease and pests, cold tolerance and other factors, laying the foundation for molecular breeding of the plant.

ARS announced that this work has resulted in three patent disclosures on the genome, which will be submitted to the US Patent Office, significantly advancing the understanding of the plant and how to engineer it moving forward to maximize its potential in the production of rubber for the tire industry.

The BRDI annual meeting also included a report from Clemson University, which is responsible for studying the environmental impacts of the entire tire life cycle using guayule versus traditional Hevea rubber in tire production.

Clemson announced that it has completed early work on the development of a computer-based Life Cycle Analysis program for guayule-based tires that will help quantify the sustainability of the effort from genome to tire production and through the service life and disposal of tires.

Grant partner PanAridus has the role of raw materials supplier for the project. The company has developed varieties of guayule with increased rubber content and has pioneered direct seeding methods, agronomics and co-product markets. At the BRDI annual meeting, PanAridus provided an update on its role in production of rubber for use in the tire industry.

PanAridus and Cooper have developed a proprietary solvent-based process to extract rubber from guayule plants. Under its work on the grant, PanAridus has produced rubber in quantities never before achieved for use in modern tires. This rubber has been supplied to Cooper for its work in the tire builds and testing.

The consortium received the five-year BRDI grant in 2012 from the USDA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to conduct research aimed at developing enhanced manufacturing processes for the production of solid rubber from the guayule plant as a biomaterial for tire applications, as well as evaluating the plant’s residual biomass for potential fuel applications. The consortium aims to harness the biopolymers extracted from guayule as a replacement for synthetic rubbers and Hevea natural rubber used in the production of tires. It is also focused on the genomic and agronomic development of guayule and the sustainability impact these biomaterial and bioenergy industries have on the American southwest, where guayule is grown. The grant period ends in the second quarter of 2017.

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