The Shortage of Natural Rubber
The only commercial natural rubber source in the world is the Brazilian Rubber Tree, Hevea brasiliensis (Hevea) grown almost exclusively in Southeast Asia. Natural rubber supplies are becoming increasingly unstable as a result of rapidly expanding growth in China and India, decline in rubber production due to industrialization in Southeast Asia, and increasing utilization of natural rubber by former Soviet Bloc countries. Multiple social, economic and political factors also represent significant risk factors to be addressed. Extracting the rubber from the trees is a process that is still very primitive. The process of cultivating the materials from the Brazilian Rubber trees cannot be mechanized and most of the extracted materials are collected in buckets and even coconuts still today.
The objective of finding viable alternatives to natural rubber from Hevea trees has been an active technical pursuit for more than 100 years. Due to threats to Hevea-derived natural rubber during WWII, investigations to develop alternative natural rubber sources were conducted in 1942, for two years until 1944. Using Hevea-derived natural rubber as a standard, the investigations included Guayule, Parthenium agentatum and the Russian Dandelion, Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TKS). TKS is a plant which produces high-quality natural rubber in fleshy taproots. Based on several studies, TKS was demonstrated to be a viable source of domestically-produced natural rubber, compatible with associated rubber manufacturing process, comparable to Hevea, and superior to Guayule.
Natural rubber is essential for the U.S. economy and national security because it provides performance characteristics not available from synthetic, petroleum-derived rubber. North America consumes 2.7 billion pounds of natural rubber of which 80% is used in tires. Moreover, trucking, construction and aviation tires require a high percentage of natural rubber to meet performance characteristics making natural rubber critical to the nationís trucking and construction industries as well as the U.S. strategic defenses. Aircraft tires require nearly 100% natural rubber to meet heat tolerance and required adhesion specifications.
The clear solution to this market need is a new rubber industry (based on TKS) which will provide high quality, domestically grown rubber. Domestic horticulture of TKS natural rubber will significantly simplify the supply chain, lower cost, provide competitive leverage and address a continuing strategic need identified as critical for our national defense.
PENRA: working toward solutions
As a marketplace need made itself apparent a pioneering program was established; capitalizing on cutting-edge research with other scientists and industry leaders across the country. The "Program of Excellence in Natural Rubber Alternatives" (PENRA) builds on previous scientific collaborations and those currently being undertaken by alliance members and collaborators.
- Domesticate and commercialize domestic sources of natural rubber
- Identify and develop processes, uses, and markets for co-products
- Jointly develop R&D initiatives that lead to domestic natural rubber alternatives
- Seek public and private partnerships