(From the March 19, 2012, issue of Rubber & Plastics News)
FINDLAY, Ohio—Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. and Yulex Corp. have agreed to collaborate in developing a tire-grade rubber from the desert shrub guayule.
Cooper will contribute its expertise in advanced polymer and materials science to the project, as well as its design, development and testing capabilities, according to an agreement announced Feb. 29.
Yulex, a leading proponent of developing latex and resins from guayule, brings to the effort its experience with the development and production of advanced engineered biopolymers from the plant.
The two companies aren't disclosing the terms of the agreement, according to Cooper.
Raw material prices have escalated rapidly during the past few years, and that plus shortages of materials means Cooper constantly is searching for alternate, reliable sources, said Charles Yur¼kovich Jr., Cooper vice president of global technology.
“For us, we can consider natural rubber to be a strategically important material and the potential to develop an alternate source, especially a domestic source of natural rubber,” he said.
A local source of NR would help the firm reduce the amount of material it imports, and give it the chance to control supply, quantity and price, the executive said.
Chandler, Ariz.-based Yulex has done a fair amount of research over the past few years on developing guayule polymers for tire manufacturing, working with different tire makers, according to Yulex CEO Jeff Martin.
“But it made sense to move forward with an exclusive agreement with Cooper,” he said. “We have a shared vision of a domestic rubber capacity for the tire industry, and we saw there was good potential for an alliance.”
Cooper and Yulex already have been working together for some time, according to Martin. They have put together a rigorous program moving forward, although there is no set timeline as yet.
Yurkovich said any timetable is based on the level of success the partnership will have, “whether (guayule) can be used for one component or many components of the tire, how much of the natural rubber that goes into the tire can you offset through use of this material and how fast can we bring something like that to market.”
Still, he surmised that within the next five to 10 years “it's very likely there will be a domestic source of natural rubber on the market.”
Research into the use of guayule as a natural rubber alternative has been conducted off and on for nearly a century.
“The obvious question is 'why now?' Why do we think it will work now when it hasn't worked in the past?” said Yur-kovich. “And basically the answer is the state of science and the state of technology, both from processing guayule with our partner Yulex and from modifying the properties of that natural rubber that comes from the plant for tire usage is at a level that it can, I think, definitely succeed.”
Yulex was founded in Philadelphia in 1997, starting business as the exclusive licensee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's patented process to extract and manufacture hypoallergenic latex from guayule, a shrub native to Mexico and the southwestern U.S.
Yulex has developed a broad portfolio of bio-based elastomer products from guayule.
Late last year, the company signed an exclusive agreement with medical product giant Ansell Ltd. to develop, manufacture and distribute hypoallergenic medical gloves, personal protection equipment gloves and condoms on a global basis. Ansell also acquired a minority interest in Yulex at the time.