Now, though, it seems like there is another plant vying to be a competitor in the field. The sunflower field, to be exact. Sunflowers, it seems, are looking to grab some of the attention—not to mention the research dollars—from the other contenders.
And Edison Agrosciences Inc. took a major step forward as a leader on this front, garnering a $1 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense. This is the second grant the St. Louis-based firm has received from DARPA, and that came after Edison's research proved to be the most promising of those who received phase one awards of $250,000 a few years back.
The DOD's interest in finding sources of natural rubber that can be grown in the U.S. is simple: it sees a potential threat to the nation's supply of the vital commodity because nearly all NR comes from the hevea rubber tree and is supplied from outside the country, depending largely on smallholders who still use "rudimentary methods of latex collection."
Edison CEO David Woodburn sees another danger—the potential for the current supply in Asia to fall victim to disease, much like what happened in South America, at one time a major producer of natural rubber.
Woodburn is hopeful that his firm can use genetic modification to at least double the yield of NR that sunflowers already produce. He also claims that sunflowers are more likely than guayule or dandelions to be the eventual winner in the alternative NR derby. The Edison CEO reasons that it's already known how to grow sunflowers, and a seed infrastructure already exists. It's the pesky matter of improving the plant and figuring out how to extract the rubber.
As to whether sunflowers are the future of NR, Edison may get a heated debate on that point from Katrina Cornish, the Ohio State University researcher who has spent many years trying to advance the fortunes of guayule and dandelions.
Meyer is editor of Rubber & Plastics News. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @bmeyerRPN.