Efforts to develop guayule and the Russian dandelion Taraxacum kok-saghyz, or TKS, have a long and storied history.
Here a few highlights:
• Continental Mexican Rubber Co. Founded in the first decade of the 20th century, it exported about 42,000 tons of rubber extracted from wild plants to the U.S. from Mexico. However, Continental Mexican's proprietors never figured out how to cultivate guayule. The company went belly up in 1912 with the depletion of the wild guayule source and when cross-border raids by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa scared away guayuleros who collected the rubber.
• Intercontinental Rubber Co. The Rockefeller family founded this company in San Diego in the 1920s, and it produced about 1,400 tons of guayule rubber. The Great Depression killed the business.
• Emergency Rubber Project. At the start of World War II, Congress passed legislation to begin the Emergency Rubber Project to counter the loss of natural rubber from Asia. The program promoted alternative rubber production through three avenues: guayule, TKS and petroleum-based synthetic rubbers.
After purchasing Intercontinental's former holdings, the federal government planted some 32,000 acres of guayule in California and Arizona. The project proved large-scale cultivation of guayule is possible.
However, the Rubber Reserve Program during the war resulted in the creation of the synthetic rubber industry. After the conflict ended, the government abandoned guayule—the guayule fields were disked under, and the research was classified for more than 30 years.
• Stalin and the Russian dandelion. The cultivation of TKS as an NR source began in 1931, several years after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin directed the Soviet agricultural community to find an alternative to Hevea rubber.
By 1940, Soviet scientists reported two TKS varieties with roots weighing 25 grams and containing 15-percent rubber by dry weight. The Emergency Rubber Project proved a major boost to Russian dandelion research. Between 1942 and 1945, TKS was grown in 28 U.S. states, the Soviet Union and Canada, and the wartime program produced about 250 kilograms of TKS rubber in the U.S. and up to 500 kilograms in the Soviet Union.
The cost of production—$44 per kilogram in the 1940s—ensured the program ended with the war.
• Oil cartel and worries about Hevea. Interest in guayule revived in the early 1980s with the oil embargoes and concerns about long-term NR supplies from Asia.
In 1982, the Department of Defense issued a $20 million guayule research grant to the Gila River Indian Community in Sacaton, Ariz. By 1985, agronomists had planted 206 acres of guayule in Sacaton. However, several problems arose, including GRIC's worries about repaying the loan and the low rubber yield from the Gila River guayule cultivar.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture took over the Sacaton project in 1986, and Firestone, precursor to Bridgestone Americas, completed a pilot guayule processing plant in 1988. The pilot plant had problems with solvent leaks and contaminated latex, and by late 1990 the Sacaton project was over.