Work on alternatives to the natural rubber derived from Hevea trees has been going on for decades. But while most prior projects were done more in the name of research, the work going on now in the industry really looks as if it will lead to commercial production.
Most of the research now centers on guayule and the so-called Russian dandelion. While some say there will be regular production of tires containing rubber from one of the two sources by the 2020s, others say it could come sooner.
Given the unsuccessful history of several past projects, of course, many will take a wait-and-see approach. Work on guayule dates back to the early 20th century.
As part of the Emergency Rubber Project at the start of World War II, the federal government planted guayule in California and Arizona. The war program created the synthetic rubber industry, but the government abandoned guayule after the war. The war effort also looked at dandelion rubber, with rubber from the plant produced in both the Soviet Union and the U.S., but it was cost-prohibitive.
A grant from the Department of Defense in the early 1980s to the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona showed some promise, but yields were low, and the project had ended by late 1990.
What's different this time around is that some of the major tire makers are putting considerable resources behind the projects. Bridgestone and Cooper Tire are involved in guayule projects, while Continental is targeting dandelion rubber, as is an Ohio State University project headed by Katrina Cornish, long involved in researching NR alternatives.
A Bridgestone Americas executive explained in a talk earlier this year that NR sourcing as it currently exists is a chancy enterprise. It represents the firm's largest raw material purchase, but it has a poor business model.
It's no sure bet any of these enterprises will succeed, but unlike at any time in the past, the commercialization of alternative sources of natural rubber is tantalizingly close.