Rubber has been in use by humans for over 1,000 years with a history tracing back to Aztec cultures using the substance to make balls for sporting events and waterproofing for containers.
Most natural rubber comes from sources like the Hevea brasiliensis and the Ficus elastica, but dandelions can also produce the latex that is used to make rubber.
Although latex rubber and dandelion rubber can both be naturally sourced, the availability of these resources for rubber production has been a challenge in recent years.
The Covid-19 pandemic slowed farming operations for latex rubber cultivation, and the Southeast Asian region where most natural latex rubber comes from has been hit by flooding and leaf diseases that have greatly affected rubber farms.
How To Make Rubber Without Latex Trees
Although the availability of rubber has not reached crisis levels, many in the latex industry are currently evaluating ways to make rubber without traditional latex-producing trees.
Synthetic rubber has been in existence since the early 1900s with chemists like Fritz Hofmann creating rubber-like products out of polyisoprene. Today, synthetic rubber is made using petroleum, and synthetic rubber accounts for more than half of all rubber products.
While synthetic rubber can offer a good substitute for natural rubber, the petroleum used in the production of synthetics can be an issue. Not only does synthetic rubber production require resources that are already stretched, but the cost of production can also be affected by changes in the oil market.
When the price at the pump goes up, manufacturers can also expect to see shifts in the cost of synthetic rubbers.
In addition, shortages of natural rubber mean more manufacturers turn to synthetics. This increases demand, meaning prices for synthetics will naturally go up.
The availability of oil has been an ongoing market pressure for decades, and recent military actions by Russia in Ukraine as well as changes to domestic production in the United States have caused oil prices to rise over the course of 2021 and 2022.
In an attempt to find alternatives to rubber trees, dandelions are receiving a second look as a potential source of latex without the need for latex trees. Dandelion production has been a little-used method for rubber production in the United States, but companies like Goodyear are currently investigating the viability of using Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TK) dandelions to produce the rubber used in the brand’s tires.
Goodyear’s efforts are in part because the TK dandelion can be grown in a number of climates found across the United States, and the plant can be harvested twice a year.
Can U.S. Agriculture Fix The Rubber Shortage?
One way that innovators are tackling the rubber shortage is by turning to rubber plantation efforts that utilize hydroponics. This method of growing and cultivating latex from natural sources reduces the need for wild cultivation while also helping dandelion rubber producers to control the supply at the source.
Hydroponic growing operations provide growers with more stability and consistency as well since these operations are usually tightly controlled indoors. Additionally, hydroponic growers often stand a better chance of controlling plant diseases and growing conditions.
Producers are also investigating new sources of natural rubber, including the guayule plant. Guayule rubber functions much like rubber derived from known natural latex sources, but it has the advantage of availability for U.S. manufacturers.
The guayule plant can be found in the southwestern United States, and its use means that manufacturers may have more options rather than relying on Southeast Asia.
As an alternative to existing latex rubber producers, guayule producers offer an alternative for times when natural events like leaf diseases and flooding wreak havoc on traditional rubber plant supplies.
Aside from being a potential candidate for sustainable rubber supplies, guayule can also be genetically altered to select for the best traits of the plant. Bridgestone was recently awarded a research grant by the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute to study the viability of genetic selection in cultivating the guayule plant.
If Bridgestone’s efforts are successful, the tire maker may be able to produce 100% sustainable rubber products by 2050.