From my early days at Rubber & Plastics News, there has been much written about the research being done to find a viable alternative for natural rubber.
My former colleague Miles Moore, who retired a year ago, wrote countless stories about the work done with guayule, the shrub that thrives in the Southwest and Mexico. Back then, I wondered more about the way it was pronounced than whether someday it could become a supplier of rubber on a commercially viable scale.
In more recent years, though, work toward finding an alternative NR supply has gotten more serious, to the point that there truly is a spot on the horizon where such dreams may indeed become a reality. Most of the major tiremakers have been involved with the research, as have a number of independent entities. There has, of course, been more study into guayule, along with a lot of investment into the possibilities involving Russian dandelions.
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.