Tires: Where the Dandelion Meets the Road?

The humble dandelion was first brought to America by European settlers.

Tires: Where the Dandelion Meets the Road?
Photo: Rusty Projector, Creative Commons, Flickr

Some credit the Scots/Irish, others say the smugglers were German. Whoever was responsible, the flowers make a tangy spring wine, the root (made into tea) is a good tonic and diuretic, and the leaves make a uniquely healthful salad.

More recently, scientists have discovered that the white sap inside the stem may be an excellent substitute for rubber, giving a whole new slant to Firestone’s slogan, "Where the rubber meets the road."

Two groups, one from Ohio State University’s Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and the other from the Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center (OBIC), are working together to design and build a processing plant to see if this bane of lawn enthusiasts and delight of children can take the place of Hevea brasiliensis (the common rubber tree). If successful, this new rubber base may outperform the real thing at a cheaper cost than artificial rubber made from petroleum byproducts.

Natural rubber is made from the sticky, white sap of trees native to South America and exported to Asia and Africa. The seeds are slow to germinate, and take two years to reach a size suitable for setting out in the field, or plantation. Harvesting the rubber does not begin until the tree is about six years old. Then, cuts are made in the bark and the sap is collected in buckets or pails (or coconut shells) attached to the tree below the cut, just like maple syrup. This sap is then dried and processed.

Young trees produce less rubber, of course, and trees only produce for 25 years, after which they have to be cut down. A mature plantation can produce four tons of rubber per acre, but in the six years before maturity the plantation owners make nothing, which is why rubber production is declining. It’s more economically viable to grow crops either for food or biofuels.

A good example of artificial rubber would be neoprene, which is made into wetsuits, electrical insulation and some types of automotive belts. Unlike rubber, neoprene is nonflammable and it won’t react to solvents or oils. Neoprene also retains its shape, even at very high temperatures, and it can be recycled more easily than rubber.

More than half of all the real rubber produced goes into making automobile tires. The rest is used in automotive belts, hoses and gaskets, or to make shoes, clothing, furniture, toys and flooring. A concentrated form of rubber, called latex, is used in surgical gloves and balloons. Rubber is also used as an adhesive in manufacturing, and in the common rubber band and pencil erasers.

The idea of collecting dandelion sap to make rubber is fairly new, and promises distinct environmental advantages. After all, dandelions aren’t good for much else except trying the patience of people who want perfectly manicured lawns. Imagine, if you will, fields of dandelions grown just for rubber. Since they willingly grow anywhere, even as far north as Alaska and the Arctic Circle, and accommodate all soil types and levels of moisture (except desert dryness), they would be extremely easy to cultivate. An entire peripheral industry could be developed around the flowers and roots, providing dandelion wine to those who live outside traditional grape-growing regions and a valuable pharmaceutical commodity to those afflicted with fluid retention as a result of heart problems, kidney malfunctions and even pregnancy or PMS.

In fact, given the commercial and ecological uselessness of lawn grass (which is only good for goats, sheep, cows or people who like to ride lawn mowers), I would recommend we all pitch in, convert our lawns to dandelions and sell the product to manufacturers, thus relieving the already burdened third world of the necessity for providing rubber to the West and its plethora of polluting propulsion systems.

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in any manufacturer of real or artificial rubber.

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