How many times, going back to your childhood, did you pluck a dandelion from a lawn or field to make a wish and blow the gossamer white flower heads off to float away in the breeze? A group at Continental are making a dandelion wish of their own, and it’s coming closer to being true. That wish is to one day make tires from rubber that comes from dandelions rather than traditional rubber trees.
In fact, the wish has already partly been realized. Continental has produced a test tire that has run in both winter and summer conditions within the last year. As part of a joint development called, “RUBIN – Industrial Emergence of Natural Rubber from Dandelion,” Continental, along with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology, the Julius Kühln Institute and the plant breeding company Aeskulap, Continental aims to be manufacturing consumer road tires made from dandelion-derived rubber within five to ten years.
Fascinating. But why?
In fact there are several reasons for why this new technology is being is being developed and if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s quite genius.
Leading the call to action is a factor that Continental can’t control, namely, the effects that climate change is having on rubber trees. It seems that over the recent past, the fluctuations in the growing cycles of rubber trees in the sub-tropical zone where rubber trees thrive have varied significantly. With these fluctuations the laws of supply and demand take over causing the price of rubber to spike. Eventually, these price spikes will trickle down to increase the price we consumers will pay for tires at retail.
Continental hopes that by producing tires from dandelion roots which are much less sensitive to weather means that supply will be steadier and easier to control leading to greater price stability.
Since dandelions can be industrially cultivated in Europe a second set of environmental and economic advantages comes into play. Transporting rubber from South America or West Africa to Europe for manufacturing is long and costly journey that also contributes significantly to output of CO2. If this part of the process can be consolidated to agricultural zones of Europe where the dandelion can thrive, the economic and carbon emissions benefits would be a significant boon to the tire industry.
“In agricultural terms, dandelions are an undemanding plant, even in the northern hemisphere, and can be cultivated on land not suitable for food production. This means that rubber production is conceivable near our tire factories, for instance, and the significantly shorter transport routes would also reduce CO2 emissions,” according to Dr. Carla Recker, who heads the Continental team involved in the development of this super material.
The base rubber produced from the dandelion root is manufactured through the joint commitment of the RUBIN participants into a material called Taraxagum™. The name comes from the botanical name for the dandelion taraxacum. Interestingly the common name of “dandelion” is derived from the French dent-de-lion, translating to “tooth of the lion” referring more to the jagged shape of the leaf rather than the wispy flower that we all think of.
Before you start thinking you can harvest the dandelions on your lawn into a cash crop, think again. Continental isn’t using just any old dandelion but a specific Russian species that is more robust and can be produced in massive quantities effectively.
The initial tests run so far demonstrate that the tire made from Taraxagum™ show an equivalent, “property profile” when compared to tires made from conventional natural rubber. While the potential is great, there remains some significant ground to be made before the use of this amazing natural material can be fully utilized. For one, there has yet to be found a suitable location in Europe to begin the large scale cultivation of the plant. Nevertheless, the group was recently able to extract several kilos of dandelion rubber from a small pilot system, which would have been double the yield possible from a conventional rubber tree plant under the same circumstances.
"With this dandelion project, we are taking a huge step forward on the path to our long-term goal of manufacturing tires for cars, trucks and bicycles, as well as specialist tires, completely without any fossil materials," explains Dr. Boris Mergell, who looks after the cooperation project as the head of Material and Process Development for Tires at Continental.
Just imagine as you gaze out on your lawn and see the those pesky dandelions popping up that some just like them will soon be the solution for tire future of tire manufacturing. In this case dandelion wishes do come true.