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Dandelion being researched as a source for natural rubber
By Doug Graves
Ohio Correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Dandelions are much more than just pesky weeds. They lend their greens to salads and can be transformed into wines and other botanical beverages.
Now, the yellow-flowered plant has become the key ingredient in a new venture – rubber tires.
The U.S. Air Force is spending millions of dollars on a program to make rubber from a certain species of dandelion that grows in the United States and use it to produce items such as aircraft tires to cut dependency on foreign supplies.
The program is being spearheaded by the Air Force Research Laboratory and involves three private companies – BioMADE, American tire giant Goodyear and small Ohio-based business Farmed Materials. If successful, the program could open a new domestic supply of natural rubber.
BioMADE, a manufacturing innovation institute sponsored by the Defense Department that specializes in biomanufacturing, has contracted Farmed Materials to cultivate the dandelions. Goodyear will produce the aircraft tires and make certain that they meet Air Force specifications.
The species of dandelions, known as Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TK for short), can grow in temperate climates within the U.S. The roots of this type of dandelion contain natural rubber latex. And unlike the seven-year turnaround time a rubber tree requires to produce the latex needed to make rubber, these dandelions can be harvested in just six months.
The milky-like substance that produces natural rubber can be found in the leaves, stems and roots of rubber trees and TK dandelions. In the dandelions the substance is harvested by crushing its roots.
“This particular species of dandelion is different than what’s in your yard,” said Angela Campo, program manager at BioMADE. The quality of its rubber is similar to what you get from the rubber tree. So that’s what made it particularly desirable for this project.”
There are substantial differences between natural rubber and synthetic rubber. The natural variety tends to be stronger, more flexible and more heat-resistant, making it suitable for items such as aircraft tires. Having vast domestic supplies of TK dandelions in the United States offers the Air Force a unique opportunity to skirt foreign supply chains and lower costs.
According to a press release, once the dandelions begin producing rubber and it’s tested and qualified, the Air Force will no longer need to rely on foreign supply lines that are vulnerable to disruption, as happened during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Air Force buys, on average, nearly 100,000 tires per year for aircraft and land vehicles at a cost of $100 million. Those tires are produced with foreign-supplied rubber.
According to a recent press release, initial yields of the dandelions grown as part of a pilot program conducted by Farmed Materials were strong. This past spring, the program funded the planting and harvesting of TK dandelions in Ohio. The resulting rubber will first be used for military aircraft tires. It will be put through rigorous testing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. According to Goodyear, if all goes well, the company’s goal is to use the dandelion-based rubber in all its tires.
“We are embarking on a new course with Goodyear to bring the latest technologies to agriculture, plant breeding and extraction process that no one has ever done before,” said Chuck Joffe, chief commercial officer for Farmed Materials. “It will increase efficiency and rubber quality dramatically.”
The Air Force said the number of dandelions needed to produce one aircraft tire depends on the size of the tire and its purpose. But the service noted it expects a single acre of cultivated TK dandelions will eventually allow Goodyear to produce 200 to 400 passenger car tires.
History will show, however, that this TK dandelion has its roots in the Soviet Union. In 1931, Soviet scientists were on the hunt for a natural source of rubber that would help the USSR become self-sufficient in key materials.
They scoured the vast territories of the Soviet Union and tested more than 1,000 different species looking for an alternative to the South American rubber tree. Eventually, on the steppes of Kazakhstan, they found one.
By 1941, the Russian dandelion, or TK, supplied 30 percent of that nation’s rubber. During World War II, shortages of Hevea tree rubber (a tree native to the Amazon basin) prompted other countries, including the United States, Britain and Germany, to begin cultivating dandelion rubber. Once the war was over and supplies returned to normal, these counties, including the Soviets, switched back to Hevea tree rubber because it was cheaper.
But now, with demand for rubber continuing to grow, there is renewed interest in the Russian dandelion, particularly from the tire industry, which consumes 70 percent of the world’s rubber supply.
Similar research into the TK dandelion is currently being performed at the Ohio Agricultural Research & Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster, Ohio. Researchers there are hoping to make use of the abundance of dandelions in the state to create an industry full of jobs in Ohio and beyond.
Less than 3 percent of all rubber trees in the world are found in Brazil and Africa. Diseases have put a crimp in trees in those locations. However, most rubber trees (92 percent) nowadays are found in southeast Asia. So, if there is ever a disruption in importing this rubber, the U.S. could be in trouble.
“Natural rubber is a highly important material,” said Dr. Katrina Cornish, researcher of bio-emergent materials at Ohio State University. “Rubber is our fourth most important resource, behind air, water and petroleum. In North America, 42 percent of all rubber we use is natural, meaning it comes from plants.”