(From the March 19, 2012, issue of Rubber & Plastics News)
AKRON—Think how great it would be if natural rubber could be grown in the U.S. or similar regions.
No more dependence of foreign sources. Improved supply. Vastly reduced shipping costs. Even better quality control, because of proximity. And you might as well throw in a new class of American jobs.
Natural rubber from a temperate climate has been a dream going back more than a century—from dandelion-based rubber pursued by Thomas Edison and, of late, the University of Akron, to research by Goodyear to get Hevea brasiliensis to grow in a non-equatorial climate.
The king of the dream has been guayule. Yes, you can get a rubber latex from this desert shrub. There actually was a burgeoning industry back in the early part of the 20th century, with 20 tons of guayule rubber produced in Mexico in 1912. A revolution in Mexico put an end to that industry.
For decades companies from Firestone to Goodyear, government entities like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, universities and “guayuleros”—proponents of the material—sought to develop guayule rubber. Usually, it was a pipe dream. That is, until Yulex came along in 1997.
The company succeeded in developing commercially viable rubber from guayule. The key has been that guayule doesn't contain the proteins found in Hevea rubber that can cause allergies. Yulex has done pretty well with its development—Ansell Inc., for example, is using it to produce rubber gloves and condoms.
The big money, though, is in tires, and in recent days there have been major developments in that regard. First, Bridgestone Corp. announced it has charged its North American tire division to create a pilot guayule farm and process center. The company is aiming to start trial production in 2015.
Shortly after that Cooper Tire disclosed it has linked up with Yulex to develop a tire-grade guayule.
This isn't the first time a tire manufacturer has made such a commitment, and none of the others has succeeded beyond a prototype. However, perhaps the time is ripe and the players in place to make this domestic NR dream a reality. It's worth the effort.