WEST CONSHOHOCKEN, Pa.—An effort is under way to create the first-ever set of standards focusing on alternative sources for natural rubber latex.
A new subcommittee is forming through standards group ASTM International to tackle the project.
Work has been under way for decades to commercialize latex production from sources other than hevea brasiliensis, the rubber tree, with two key sources emerging as likely candidates, according to Tom Marsh, who is chairing the new subcommittee.
Both dandelions and the guayule plant are within a handful of years of latex commercialization, said Marsh, global head of technical services, product development and laboratory services for Corrie MacColl International. "It's no longer if, it's when it will become reality."
So the new subcommittee, with an ASTM designation of D11.21, is bringing together experts in the field to agree on standards that will govern the use of latex from these alternative sources. Some 30 people already have signed on to give their input, and the group hopes to first meet in person later this year. An initial June gathering was scrapped due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
"It all came together in the last year where they were looking for the proper forum to bring the stakeholders together to talk about the specific needs, challenges, testing requirements, etc. for a domestic polymer, other than the hevea brasiliensis, standard rubber," Marsh explained.
Katrina Cornish is director of the Program of Excellence in Natural Rubber Alternatives at Ohio State University. She's also secretary of the new subcommittee and recognized as an expert in the field of alternative rubber supply.
"It's getting closer and closer all the time. But basically, the acceleration of it is funding dependent," Cornish said.
Companies around the world are working with alternative sources for natural rubber, and these sources do not respond in the same way as hevea-based rubber. That's why it's important to create new standards to help oversee their use, she said.
"As we have companies in Europe now, in China, in Africa, the U.S., Canada working on alternatives. It's very important to put standards around them because they are not the same rubber as hevea," Cornish said. "And so the standards developed for hevea are not all encompassing enough to be effectively used for the alternative rubber, especially guayule, which is quite different from both dandelion and hevea.
"There's over 2,500 species that make natural rubber. We need to make specific standards and adjust standards so that they can fit," she said.
Latex is produced in three main parts of the world these days: Southeast Asia, South America and West Africa. Researchers want to develop alternatives to the rubber tree that would allow for production to expand elsewhere, including the U.S. and Europe.
But they also see the need to establish standards for these alternative sources before they become commercialized.
"I think they all realize you need to come together and do this to be ready for that two-year to five-year window. Because you don't have the standards in place now, you may have the product and then you are behind the curve. I think this is very forward-thinking for stakeholders," Marsh said.
But creating standards takes time.
"It's challenging for a couple of reasons. For one, it's an agricultural crop as opposed to synthetic, which is man-made where there's a lot more control, if you will, on the production of the raw material. Here there's reliance on mother nature, the weather, the soil. That makes it more challenging," Marsh said.
"Also, you are gathering pretty specific expertise from major companies. … Most are experts in their field. That's why they are there. You will have a high number of PhDs, for example. You will have very experienced stakeholders that operate at a high level at their companies. So putting together that group and getting consensus in things is a little more challenging at times. You've got some pretty high-powered individuals with some pretty set ways," he said.
Despite the challenges that all that expertise in one forum creates, Marsh said the people coming together on the subcommittee is a "great group" who essentially know one another from their relatively small world of expertise.
ASTM, with its approach of creating standards already in place, was a natural place to convene the group, Marsh said.
"That's really what ASTM does. It provides a forum to bring the stakeholders together for these different market segments, and then allows you a platform to develop the standards and test methods to evaluate and classify these materials," he said.
Marsh, as chairman of the subcommittee, is no stranger to West Conshohocken-based ASTM. In fact, he's a big believer. His resume shows a 30-year membership in the group, including his 2017 stint as chairman of the entire organization.
Still, he said, the committee process will take time.
"In the world of standards, if you are generating something in the first three to five years, that's pretty substantial. Because, remember, you have to bring together these experts and then you have to get consensus," he said.
The subcommittee is getting a springboard to help with its efforts as there's already been some work done regarding guayule that can be used as a starting off point for the group.
Marsh estimated that guayule is probably three to five years away from commercialization and dandelions are a bit longer, maybe 4 to 7 years.
Latex taken from nature can be used to create its own products like gloves and condoms through a dipping process. The liquid latex also is processed to create hardened rubber that serves as the basis for countless products.
Dandelions and guayule serve as potential relief for rubber production that's currently limited to certain geographic regions that create long supply chains throughout the world.
That's certainly become even more evident with the recent COVID-19 outbreak that has put a strain on normal business practices, Marsh said. "If we have the ability to grow acceptable, usable alternative polymers in the United States (and Europe), we should look at that," he said.
A specific dandelion—known as TKS for tabacum kok-saghyz, or the Russian dandelion—offers promise for commercialization. Guayule, meanwhile, is a shrub that's found in the Southwest U.S. and northern Mexico.
Guayule could be farmed on millions of acres of land that was once used to grow cotton in the U.S., Marsh said.
Both guayule and the Russian dandelion were utilized during World War II to create rubber when Japan had taken control of a vast majority of the production. Those sources eventually were abandoned after the war as synthetic rubber grew in popularity.
"The time has come," Marsh said. "All the relative stakeholders see that, and they want to come together. And they know that using the ASTM format, that gives them a realistic opportunity to get standards in place relatively quickly to move this forward.
"You need to have the standards to be able to judge the quality and judge the performance of these materials, to get them out into commercialization. This is a key part," he said.
Viability for the alternative rubber market lies in the products being made from the material, Cornish said.
"The really important thing is to go into the premium end of the market. Cooper made beautiful guayule tires. One-hundred percent guayule, no synthetic, no hevea. They would love to make that tire, but where is the commodity price. There is no commodity price without commodity scale production," she said.
"If you are not a commodity, if you are a premium product, you can't sell into the commodity market. It's not rocket science," Cornish said.