DURHAM, N.C.—For Thomas Christensen, CEO of Durham-based Edison Agrosciences Inc., sunflowers are a logical choice as an alternative source of natural rubber.
“When I look at other rubber-producing plants, they are more wild plants than crops,” Christensen said. “Domesticating them will take time. Sunflowers are a native producer of natural rubber. They have been planted a very long time, and the agronomics are very well understood.
“There are lots of things to like about sunflowers.”
Even so, the rubber produced by sunflower leaves—about 2 percent by volume—needs to increase to four or five times that level for sunflowers to be commercially viable for NR production, the executive said. It is the goal of Edison Agrosciences, a startup company founded in December 2013, to accomplish just that.
Christensen, who is also CEO of agricultural technology firm Ag TechInventures, said his research and development program for sunflower rubber has two goals. The first is to use biotechnology to increase rubber precursors in sunflowers, and the second is to increase the number of sunflower leaves produced per acre.
There already has been a good deal of sunflower seed development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Colorado State University for the purpose of rubber production, according to Katrina Cornish, chief scientific officer at Edison Agrosciences.
There is also a very good test system in place to measure the content and quality of rubber in sunflower plants, said Cornish, who also holds an endowed chair at Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
But he said more work is needed to produce the desired quality of rubber consistently.
“We have to control the amount of substrates so we don't accidentally produce a plant with low-molecular-weight rubber,” she said.
Sunflower leaves produce more rubber when the plants don't have heads, Christensen said. Edison Agrosciences plans to develop a method of removing the heads mechanically, and also to conduct research in producing headless sunflowers, he said.
He said he expects to have a commercial plant for sunflower rubber production in 2019. Edison Agrosciences recently received more than $800,000 in equity financing, he said.
In any case, the market is bullish for alternative sources of natural rubber, Christensen said, especially with the current challenges in both economics and environmental sustainability regarding Hevea rubber.
“The natural rubber market is in many ways an appealing market,” he said.
Christensen said Edison Agrosciences has just received funding from the state of Missouri and the city and county of St. Louis. He said the company will be moving to St. Louis from Durham sometime this year.