Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME, in collaboration with Continental, are building a pilot system to extract rubber from the Russian dandelion for making tires. Working jointly with industry and science, the IME scientists have optimized the cultivation and production engineering for dandelion rubber over the past few years.
The joint project officially started at the beginning of October. The goal is to develop the production process over the next five years so that Continental can manufacture tires made from dandelion rubber; first prototype test tires made with blends from dandelion rubber are scheduled to be tested on public roads over the next few years.
The root of the Russian dandelion (Taraxacum koksaghyz) was identified as a source of natural rubber during the course of a strategic program undertaken by the USSR in 1931-1932. According to a 2007 review of new crops for the production of rubber by Jan B. van Beilen and Yves Poirier at the Université de Lausanne, dandelion rubber was used for rubber production during World War II.
(The US had established an emergency rubber project in 1942 to explore source alternative plant sources for rubber, which included the Russian dandelion.)
Tires made from Russian dandelion rubber were as resilient as those produced from Hevea brasiliensis (the rubber tree) and were better than guayule rubber-derived tires—“probably owning to the extraordinarily high molecular weight of the dandelion rubber.”
Although Russian dandelion has lactifiers (cell systems which produce latex), van Beilen and Poirier noted, the rubber canot be harvested by tapping; plant roots must be homogenized and the rubber pressed out or extracted.
Turning Russian dandelion into a profitable crop would require an increase of vigor and more favorable agronomic properties. … Specific targets include breeding for larger roots that are easier to harvest and increased rubber accumulation. In addition, the low yield per hectare, labor-intensive cultivation, crosses and seed contamination with other dandelions and weed potential should be tackled.
… Fast-track breeding methods or the overexpression or downregulation of key genes that are involved in rubber biosynthesis and rubber accumulation are applicable more rapidly to Russian dandelion with its short life cycle than to species, such as H. brasiliensis, which needs several years of growth before clear phenotypes can be determined. … A further advantage of Russian dandelion is that it is amenable both to tissue culture and to transformation and detectable rubber phenotypes can be obtained within 6 months.—van Beilen and Poirier
In addition to building a pilot plant that can produce dandelion rubber by the ton, the Fraunhofer team is cultivating several hectares of a dandelion variety which is particularly rich in rubber. To optimize the raw material content and the properties of the blossom, the researchers concurrently grew new varieties with a higher proportion of rubber and biomass yield.
The natural product obtained in this manner exhibited the same quality as the conventional rubber from rubber trees that has been imported from subtropical countries and used in tire production. However unlike the conventional rubber, it could be harvested more cost-effectively, better cultivated and grown in Germany as a sustainable raw material—even on land areas not previously suited for agricultural crops.
Through the most modern cultivation methods and optimization of systems technology, we have succeeded in manufacturing high-grade natural rubber from dandelions … in the laboratory. The time is now right to move this technology from the pilot project-scale to the industrial scale. We have found an expert partner in Continental, with whom we now want to create tires that are ready for production.—Prof. Dr. Rainer Fischer, head of institute at IME in Aachen
We are investing in this highly promising materials development and production project because we are certain that in this way we can further improve our tire production over the long term. t’s because the rubber extraction from the dandelion root is markedly less affected by weather than the rubber obtained from the rubber tree. Based on its agricultural modesty, it holds entirely new potential—especially for cropland that is lying fallow today. Since we can grow it in much closer proximity to our production sites, we can further reduce both the environmental impact as well as our logistics costs by a substantial margin. This development project impressively demonstrates that, with regard to material development, we have not reached the end of our potential.—Nikolai Setzer, the Continental managing director who is responsible for the tires division
Scientists at the Münster-based IME there have shown that the rubber extracted from dandelion is of the same quality as its cousin from the rubber tree. The team under Prof. Dr. Dirk Prüfer is gathering comprehensive raw data for the first time on the individual varieties, on their rubber content and on the biological mechanisms of production.
With the aid of this knowledge, they succeeded in cultivating varieties that are especially high in yield, robust, and easy to grow.
The greatest challenge was to transform the weed into a useful crop and to cultivate suitable varieties. In the meantime, a few of our plants proved to contain a markedly elevated rubber content. We will now stabilize these even further by breeding them.— Prof. Prüfer
Compared to the rubber tree, the Fraunhofer scientists say, it has three decisive advantages:
Its vegetation period only lasts one year, not several years. Afterwards, the plants can be harvested immediately, and be further optimized by breeding.
It is less vulnerable to pests.
It does not require a subtropical climate and can be planted on domestic croplands.
Jan B. van Beilen, Yves Poirier (2013) “Establishment of new crops for the production of natural rubber,” Trends in Biotechnology, Volume 25, Issue 11 Pages 522-529 doi: 10.1016/j.tibtech.2007.08.009