CROWDED DETOURS ON NR TRAIL
Elsewhere, Bridgestone successfully decodes the main genome sequence for Hevea brasiliensis, the data of which is expected to facilitate the development of improved breeding technologies and growing methods of NR. These are only a few among an increasing range of stepped up activities in the global tyre industry to overcome the growing shortage of natural rubber.
While NR will continue to remain irreplaceable totally due to the unique features of Hevea brasiliensis latex, signs are that the manufacturing sector will intensify research to come up with a viable alternative that can offer acceptable results. The shortage of NR is most likely to keep rising that at some point of time, tyre manufacturers will be forced to settle for a workable alternative, analysts say.
If that happens, the day could dawn earlier than expected when cars roll on tyres made from flowers and beans.
The Apollo Vredestein effort is a harbinger of things to come. The company is a partner in the EU-PEARLS European project funded by the European Commissionâ€™s 7th Framework Programme. It aims at developing NR alternatives for Europe and reducing dependence on Asian rubber and involves partners from eight different countries. The Asian â€śmonopolyâ€ť element is only part of the big picture, the main thrust being getting out of the NR circle, which is forecast to go in circles for a long time to come with the prospects of supply meeting demand looking bleak.
The consortium is working with the Neiker-Tecnalia research centre at the Basque Institute for Agricultural Research and Development, which has been commissioned to research, among other things, the genotyping of the guayule shrub (Parthenium argentatum) and the Russian dandelion plant (Taraxacum kok-saghyz). The guayule is considered to be promising for the Mediterranean areas, while the Russian dandelion is more suited to the northern and eastern Europe.
In the US, guayule cultivation has been receiving considerable support from the government for long. In Europe it used to produce biomass on a large scale in Spain. According to experts, extracting latex from the Russian dandelion is easier. The Neiker-Tecnalia research is focused on optimising the growth and the speed of growth of the Russian dandelion.
The Ohio State Universityâ€™s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center is also busy working on similar lines. Its Program for Excellence in Natural Rubber Alternatives (PENRA) includes a number of tyre companies.
The US government grant to Cooper Tire & Rubber shows the level of intensity in the search for NR alternatives for the manufacturing sector. The US$6.9 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is mainly for Cooperâ€™s research on developing enhanced manufacturing processes, testing and utilising guayule natural rubber for use in tyres, and evaluating the remaining guayule plant biomass as a source of bio-fuel for the transportation industry.
This is part of a much bigger government funding â€“ over US$30 million - for the research and development into technologies and processes for alternative renewable fuels and bio-based products. Private investment into this area by research institutes and manufacturing companies is as big as or even bigger than this. The bio-fuels produced from these projects are expected to reduce US dependence on imported fuels and lower greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 50% compared to fossil fuels.
Cooper Tire is leading a group of companies, universities and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the USDA to develop guayule technology for future commercialisation opportunities within the tyre industry. Yulex Corporation, a specialist in guayule crop science and renewable products made from guayule, will manufacture the material. According to Chuck Yurkovich, Cooperâ€™s Vice President of Global Technology, â€śThe goal of this effort is to decrease our reliance on off-shore raw materials while creating new jobs for American workers.â€ť
While working on developing alternatives, most major tyre makers are also trying to ensure a captive source for natural rubber so that steady supply is assured. That certainly is not an easy task. NR production takes time, money and effort. For companies, money and effort may be easier to tackle, but time is absolutely un-compromisable.
Bridgestone, which has been working on ways to optimise Hevea brasiliensis productivity, has successfully decoded its main genome sequence. The companyâ€™s researchers have obtained valuable data that can help develop improved breeding technologies and growing methods for Hevea brasiliensis. Bridgestone expects to develop an improved clone with higher yield and quality.
The company researchers are also trying to improve disease diagnosis in existing Hevea brasiliensis varieties. Bridgestone has partnered with the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organisation (NEDO), a Kawasaki-based group, along with many other Indonesian and Japanese institutes and universities on the research for disease free clones.
Commenting on the efforts to find NR alternatives, Dr. Hiroshi Mouri, President, Bridgestone Americas Center for Research and Technology, told media: â€śWe know that there are more than 1,200 types of plants from which natural rubber could in theory be harvested, but finding one that could practically produce the quality and amount of rubber needed to meet the demands of todayâ€™s tyre market is a challenge.â€ť
Apart from the ever growing demand-supply gap, there is also the factor of environment sustainability. New rules and regulations on sustainability are being implemented the world over, forcing tyre makers as well as NR growers to adapt to new technologies and methods. Search for other options is also growing strong on this front.
Goodyearâ€™s Innovation Center recently came up with a new method that could substitute soybean oil for as much as seven million gallons of oil each year. The additional benefit, experts say, is that the alternative ingredient can improve tread life by as much as 10%.
The day of flowers and beans driving cars may be distant. But, the speed with which the manufacturing sector is driving research for alternative source of raw material is tremendously higher than what it used to be. The big trees are certainly fielding the winds of change.