Hilton Head Island, South Carolina – Alternative sources of natural rubber are no longer in the realm of speculation but are now viable technologies for tire manufacturing, a pair of speakers claimed at the 33rd Clemson University Global Tire Industry Conference in Hilton Head, April 19-21.
Taraxacum kok-saghyz — more commonly called TKS or Russian dandelions — are often spoken of as an experimental source of natural rubber, according to Daniel Swiger, president and CEO of TKS grower Kultevat Inc.
However, he said, Russian dandelions have has been cultivated for close to a century.
"We need a domestic source of natural rubber," Swiger said. "TKS is a very good, high-molecular-weight rubber."
NR is so important that the world can't afford to limit its production to one plant in one part of the world, according to Swiger.
"One of these days, leaf blight is going to hit Hevea," he said. "Some believe it, some don't. I think it probably will hit in some point in time."
TKS was part of Thomas Edison's research into alternative sources of natural rubber, which also included guayule, goldenrod and milkweed, Swiger said. In the 1930s, the Soviets began extensive research and development into TKS, which originated in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, he said.
TKS and guayule were both the subject of intense research during the Emergency Rubber Project of World War II, Swiger said. Some 25,000 acres of guayule were cultivated in the U.S. Southwest and 7,000 acres of TKS throughout the rest of the US during that time, he said.
Today, St. Louis-based Kultevat is poised to offer high-quality TKS rubber in commercial amounts, according to Swiger. The company is growing TKS in 42 states and has both a patented NR extraction process and a capital-efficient, bolt-on manufacturing plan, he said.
"We've done everything we can to increase biomass and yield," Mr. Swiger said.
Kultevat has an ongoing partnership with KeyGene N.V., a Dutch vegetable seed research and development firm whose clients account for more than 30 percent of global vegetable seed production, he said.
The partnership between Kultevat and KeyGene is important in two ways, Mr. Swiger said. It coordinates the efforts of both companies to accelerate development of commercially viable TKS varieties and also to commercialize the best germplasm and genetics for bulk rubber production, he said.
KeyGene bred TKS with another plant, TKO, to increase rubber yield, according to Mr. Swiger. "We're moving into where we have hybrids," he said. "Nobody else has that."
Some Kultevat germplasms have had rubber yields above 10 percent, with one germplasm producing as high as 22 percent, according to Swiger.
Kultevat also partners with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, which has 1,700 Ph.Ds in agricultural science on staff, according to Mr. Swiger. The center has state-of-the-art technology, as well as greenhouses that provide artificial rain and sunshine, he said.
"At the Danforth Center, we can simulate on the inside what we proved on the outside," Mr. Swiger said.
Kultevat has signed an R&D agreement with Sumitomo Rubber Industries Ltd. for TKS development, according to Swiger. He noted other TKS and guayule R&D programs and partnerships, especially with Continental AG in Germany.
"We're seven to 10 years ahead of everyone else," he said.
Kultevat is in the fundraising phase for a TKS processing plant it plans to build in southwestern Missouri, probably in 2018, he added.