The demand for natural rubber will exceed supply by 15 to 20 percent within the next five years, says William Ravlin, Ph.D., associate director of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center of The Ohio State University.
“It’s not so much a case of diminishing supply as it is a sharply increased demand for rubber from China and India,” he explains. “The situation in the United States is one of national security, the economy and the growth of major corporations that depend on a sustainable approach to obtaining natural rubber.”
Rubber is used in a wide variety of products made in Ohio, and our traditional manufacturing economy relies upon its continued avaialbility. Slowly but surely, critical research is taking place to identify new sources for this material.
The Program of Excellence in Natural Rubber Alternatives (PENRA
) was formally established in 2012 to help address this problem but, according to Dr. Ravlin, the founding members have been collaborating on it for the past five years. The founding members are Ohio State University, Oregon State University, Bridgestone America, Cooper Tire, Ford Motor Company and Veyance Technologies, an Ohio company. The United States Department of Agriculture, the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Guelph in Canada are also collaborators.
Research scientists involved in PENRA have discovered that the roots of an unlikely candidate – the Russian dandelion – are able to produce rubber that’s comparable to rubber used today. Seeds from USDA expeditions in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been planted in field plots and greenhouses in Wooster, Ohio.
There are many challenges, however. “Planting a huge amount of seeds only nets a small harvest of good ones, so it’s a time-consuming and ongoing process,” Dr. Ravlin notes. “Large amounts of the root material need to be processed at the front end to produce enough natural rubber for industries to conduct large-scale tests. Plus, the rubber must meet exacting standards. Airplane tires, for example, are made of 100 percent natural rubber.”
PENRA funding sources include a grant from the OSU Ohio Research and Development Center and the Third Frontier program, with additional support from Bridgestone America, Cooper Tire and Veyance Technologies.
“We have 20 senior research scientists, each with several employees, working on this project,” Dr. Ravlin says. “We’ve completed the construction of a pilot processing plant in Wooster, and we’re in the midst of a testing phase that’s progressing very well.”
Source: William Ravlin, P.h.D., Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, The Ohio State University
Writer: Lynne Meyer