Long thought to be a backyard pest to suburban lawns, the dandelion may have a future as a row crop for rubber production. New collaborative research is now occurring with the hopes of making dandelion farming more practical. Some believe dandelions have the potential to help growers diversify, while helping to provide a reliable, domestic source of biofuel and rubber.
Nebraska Research on Dandelions
David Ostdiek of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reported on the multi-state collaborative project called Biofuel and Rubber Research and their Agricultural Linkages (BARRAL). The goal is to try and find out whether or not rubber and biofuels can be grown and processed in the US. The project is led by Nevin Lawrence, Nebraska Extension integrated weed management specialist.
Roots, Sap, Rubber
The team isn’t growing typical yellow-flowering dandelions that most of us are familiar with. The variety is called Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TK), and the rubber derived from the large, carrot-like roots has qualities that are nearly identical to the rubber we’re currently using from rubber trees.
The BARRAL group is hoping to overcome some of the barriers to commercializing TK. They’re facing many challenges. There are agronomic and mechanical challenges for planting and harvesting. There are also logistical challenges for handling, storage and bioprocessing of the biofuel and rubber. It’s also unknown what kind of impact growing rubber in the Northern US could have on the rubber industry as a whole.
Commercializing the Crop
Specific goals for the $2 million project jointly funded by the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture include:
- Determining what equipment and methods should be used to establish a crop
- Defining the optimal growing season
- Discovering irrigation and fertilizer needs
- Regulating weeds
- Establishing the best harvest methods
So Far, Tricky to Grow
Germination in greenhouses has been fairly easy with TK. However, it seems to be a different story outside. Researchers thought that the light, sandy soil in Nebraska would provide ideal growing conditions, but getting the plots started has proved challenging.
TK can be susceptible to weeds because the plants don’t grow tall enough to choke out the weeds below. The seeds are also very small and sensitive to cold temperatures and lack of moisture. Lawrence said,
“The small seeds … are not as good at dealing with environmental conditions. They need to be planted very shallow, but they dry out quickly. Even with overhead irrigation, we can’t put on enough water to keep the seed wet.”
However, once established the plant can be very hardy.
The researchers have already managed to produce some rubber, and it’s already been used to make products. Lawrence says they’ve used it for bicycle tires and other small items.
“We’ve proved it works,” he said. “We can do it, it’s just a matter of getting the agronomics together.
“Theoretically, it could be economically ground-breaking for the region,” he said. “We’re just not there yet.”
Rubber is an essential part of life, says Andrew Brosick of The Business Farmer. It’s used in a plethora of products from car tires to belts to shoes.
Rubber is produced from the sap that comes from tropical trees. The trees cannot be grown in the US. Collecting sap from rubber trees isn’t an easy process.
“It’s harvested similarly to maple syrup,” Lawrence said. “You hammer a spigot into a tree and collect (the sap) in buckets. It’s very labor intensive, very difficult.”
Nearly all of our commercially available natural rubber comes from rubber trees in Southeast Asia.
The United States imports 1.5 million tons of natural rubber per year for manufacturing, as well as for vast quantities of finished goods. Currently, there is a global shortfall in natural rubber production; as other countries develop, so will global demand.
World Supply is Precarious
We’ve been looking into alternative sources of rubber for quite some time, but have yet to develop a domestic supply. The first research into dandelion rubber started when our rubber supplies were under threat from Japanese blockades during World War II. Research about alternative sources of rubber have been spotty since then- and challenging to develop.
We Need a Domestic Rubber Supply
Chris Bennett of Farm Journal talked about the future of domestically grown rubber in an article he wrote a little over three years ago. He spoke with Katrina Cornish, an Ohio State University research scholar and endowed chair in Bioemergent Materials with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. Cornish predicted that rubber crops from dandelions, sunflowers or guayule would become a part of typical farming rotations, and her research several years ago has influenced the direction of the BARRAL group.
At that time Bennett’s article was published, the US market value for natural rubber was more than $40 billion.
World demand for rubber has only risen from there, and Cornish believes we are headed for a shortage. Southeast Asia’s Hevea trees are susceptible to South American leaf blight, which has already decimated the rubber trees in Brazil. All of the rubber trees in Southeast Asia are derived from a small number of seed samples, which is a heritage of about 15 trees. If any kind of disease emerges, Cornish says that could be catastrophic for the world’s natural rubber supply.
“Where’s it going to come from? Not the Hevea rubber tree. We’d better be growing it right here on American farmland.”
Though it appears to be several years away, the possibility of having a domestic rubber supply could be extremely valuable. As it is, the world rubber supply is somewhat precarious, and a reliable, domestic supply would not only provide is with security, but it could also help US growers diversify and grow the crops we need.