CLEVELAND (Sept. 28, 2012)—Michael Fraley is serious about commercializing tire-grade rubber from the desert shrub guayule. And he wants the world to know it.
Speaking Sept. 19 at the International Tire Exhibition & Conference in Cleveland, Fraley announced the public release of the first samples of domestically produced guayule rubber from his company, PanAridus L.L.C., for evaluation by manufacturers.
“This is a huge milestone,” Fraley said. “Now there are samples of guayule rubber for the industry to quantify for your own various applications. I'm not going to stand up here and tell you what it's like—you're going to tell me.”
For the past four years, PanAridus has been working toward making tire-grade guayule rubber commercially viable, according to Fraley. The company has the world's largest collection of growing guayule germplasm and the world's only dedicated guayule research team, he said.
“The key to success is at the farm gate,” he said. “I know the importance of sustained research. We're talking about a commodity, and you have to compete in a commodity-based market.”
The samples PanAridus provides interested parties will be large enough for them to run all the qualitative and physical property tests they need—about 150 to 250 grams apiece, Fraley said.
Depending on germplasm and extraction techniques, the quality of guayule rubber can vary enormously, according to Fraley. “But I can guarantee you one thing: all the samples we provide will meet or exceed the TSR 10 standard,” he said.
Building on history
Guayule rubber has a history stretching back to the earliest years of the 20th century, Fraley said. “I'm a student of history,” he said. “History doesn't predict the future, but it informs it.”
The first major attempt to cultivate guayule, according to Fraley, was the Emergency Rubber Project begun in 1942 in response to the Japanese embargo of Hevea rubber from Southeast Asia.
Thousands of acres of guayule were planted in the Southwest, and thousands of pages of research data generated.
But in 1946, after World War II, the project abruptly ended. “Everything pertaining to guayule was destroyed,” he said. “Plants and seed were destroyed, scientists dispersed, and project information classified.”
Only in the 1970s, under the Freedom of Information Act, did the research information on guayule become available again, he said.
The OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s caused oil and synthetic rubber prices to soar, leading to passage of the Natural Latex Commercialization Act in 1978.
The Gila River Indian Community started a research project in Sacaton, Ariz., aided by the Agriculture and Defense Departments and Firestone.
The fall of oil prices in the 1980s, however, was only one of the factors that led to the failure of the Sacaton project, according to Fraley.
While it produced a large guayule plant, one problem was that the Gila River cultivar—a plant that has been selected intentionally to be maintained through cultivation—had a very low rubber yield, he said.
Another was that the cultivar took three or four years to mature, and the extraction process required the destruction of the plant.
“I still have the largest inventory of rubber from Sacaton,” Fraley said. “The technology has changed tremendously since 1985, and we need to go back and revisit it.
“How we make a tire now is very different from what it used to be, and the genetics are very different. You don't have to rewrite the book, but you have to go back to the first chapter.”
PanAridus has developed a guayule plant that will mature in two years and can be harvested annually for the next four or five years, according to Fraley.
PanAridus' extraction process is non-destructive of the plant, he said.
Even at the end of the plant's productive life, it is 100 percent reusable, with the bagasse or plant mass having excellent potential in the energy sector, he said.
PanAridus is far from the only company seeking to establish commercial production of guayule.
In July, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. said it would use part of a four-year, $6.9 million USDA grant to fund research and development into the production of a tire with 100 percent guayule rubber content.
Cooper is working on the project with Yulex Corp., which produces guayule latex for hypoallergenic medical products based on an aqueous extraction process developed by USDA, according to Chuck Yurkovich, Cooper vice president of global technology.
Currently, Cooper is investigating the properties of tire-grade guayule rubber samples from Yulex, Yurkovich said.
“The challenge of what we're doing is that we're trying to replace 100 percent of the natural and synthetic rubber in a tire with 100 percent guayule,” he said.
The tread, the sidewall and the inner liner all have different performance requirements that must be met, he said.
The first tire to be built with all-guayule rubber was back during the Emergency Rubber Project in 1942, according to Yurkovich.
“The downside is that no one has been able to do it successfully with complete replacement by guayule rubber,” he said. “That's what makes this project such an interesting challenge.”
Fraley was vice president of agriculture at Yulex, but said he left on his own volition.
The aqueous extraction process for guayule rubber that Yulex uses is good for preserving the hypoallergenic qualities of guayule latex, he said, but the solution-based process PanAridus uses allows greater flexibility, control and efficiency in the extraction of rubber for tire-grade use.
“After 16 years in business, they (Yulex) still have red ink,” Fraley said. “Something needs to be done.”
However, Yurkovich said the Cooper-Yulex project has everything it needs to be a success.
“I feel the Cooper-Yulex connection is in a unique position,” he said.
Fraley said the plan isn't economically feasible yet, “but at this point Yulex does have a production facility producing latex, and that is unique.”
Yurkovich said Cooper is very interested in what PanAridus and other companies do to achieve guayule commercialization, and that Cooper regards the other companies as friendly rivals working toward a common goal.
Among other companies working in guayule is Bridgestone Americas, whose research began decades ago, dating back to Firestone, which parent Bridgestone Corp. acquired in 1988.
In August, Bridgestone Americas purchased a 281-acre plot in Eloy, Ariz., to serve as the base of agricultural operations for its pending guayule research center in Mesa, Ariz.
Groundbreaking for the Bridgestone guayule research center is scheduled shortly, the company said at the time. Bridgestone officials could not be reached for comment.