Scientists have been tackling the vexing issue for decades, trying new tactics and engineering new equipment. Researchers have traveled to the high plains in Kazakhstan in pursuit. Companies and governments are spending heavily.
Their mission: Grow more dandelions.
“We wish it would grow more like a weed,” said John Cardina, an agronomist at Ohio State University who came up with a specially designed seed sucker to make collecting the fluffy seeds less of a chore.
Many Americans spend time and money trying to stamp out the persistent, yellow-flowered weed from their lawns. But businesses and academics have long been trying—and failing—to grow another type of dandelion.
Dr. Cardina is part of a team working with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. , and Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. to turn the humble rubber dandelion plant—a cousin of the common weed—into a commercial source of rubber.
The problem isn’t extracting the latex from the roots of dandelions—U.S. scientists figured that out during World War II when rubber from Asia was hard to get. Instead, the issue is getting enough dandelions.
The growing challenge has confounded inventors, scientists and business executives for more than a century. Concerned about U.S. dependence on foreign rubber after World War I, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone built a botanical research laboratory that tested more than 17,000 plants. That led to the discovery of several species with the potential to help reduce dependence on imported rubber. Russian scientists started experimenting with the dandelion in the 1930s.
Today, companies and governments are still trying to cultivate the unusual source of natural rubber. They keep running into trouble—and other weeds.
A similar white, sticky latex that can be drawn from the trunks of rubber trees in Southeast Asia can be found in the roots of rubber dandelions. Thousands are needed to make enough rubber for a single car tire.
During the war years, dandelions were grown in neat rows allowing farmers to hoe between lines of the plants. Dr. Cardina tried this. It worked, but still left him with another problem: not enough dandelions in each field.
He is now trying a more free-form approach, scattering the seeds and hoping they take where they land and produce enough ground cover that unwanted weeds don’t pop up in between.
“It’s really susceptible to most of the herbicides that we use,” said Dr. Cardina. Rubber dandelions are less robust than the common ones and grow slowly above ground. The plants’ leaves are less pointy and the flowers a more lemon-yellow color.
People are already “emotionally charged about dandelions” because of “extraordinary concerns about having a little bit of yellow in their carpet of green” lawn, said Dr. Cardina, and researchers don’t want them confusing the rubber type with the common variety.
They were lucky and found the plant, known by the local population historically as something like a chewing gum, said Dr. Kirschner, a botanist at the Institute of Botany, Academy of Sciences in the Czech Republic, who led the effort. While often referred to as the Russian dandelion, it grows only in Kazakhstan, according to Dr. Kirschner.
The plant, which has the same distinctive yellow flowers of its more common cousin, also goes by the more utilitarian name “rubber root.”
Near Klamath Falls, Ore., rubber dandelions were first grown in the 1940s. Decades later, the trials and tribulations continue there.
Richard Roseberg, an agronomist at Oregon State, started working with the plants in 2008. They grew when he popped the seeds into a petri dish. Then he headed out into the fields.
“We thought this will be a piece of cake,” said Dr. Roseberg. It wasn’t. Across half an acre, only three or four patches looked good and the rest was largely bare.
Like lawn lovers, scientists are wary of the common dandelion encroaching on their work—and they are quick to point out the crop won’t be ruining yards around the country. “I’m more worried about what they have in their yard infiltrating and contaminating my research plot,” said Dr. Roseberg.
Germany’s Continental AG has showcased a new tire embossed with dandelions that it hopes to mass produce within the next decade.
Some projects are cloaked in secrecy. The team that tried growing dandelions on acres on a corner of a carrot farm in western Ohio, Farmed Materials, won’t talk about its work, citing nondisclosure agreements.
Katrina Cornish, who leads the alternate rubber production program at Ohio State, sees dandelion-rubber-soled running shoes as more likely than tires in the near term.
“You can’t just go straight to tires,” she said. “You need to at least do bicycle tires first.”
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