Rubber is an essential substance to humankind. It has tens of thousands of applications from car and aircraft tyres to medical equipment. At this time synthetic rubber simply does not offer the same load –bearing qualities or resistance performance. As such, rubber is one material we can’t live without.
The Big Fear
The first Hevea brasiliensis or rubber trees were found in South America. Due to a fungal disease, however, very little rubber can be harvested. As such, 90% of the world’s rubber supplies come from South East Asia. Should the disease spread to this part of the world, things will look bleak for our species.
As car ownership increases in China and India the demand for rubber has never been higher. As well as a fear of disease, ecological damage is far reaching as more hectares are being cultivated to meet demand.
Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Russian Dandelion
The Dandelion Rubber and Inulin Valorization and Exploitation for Europe (DRIVE4EU) may have found the solution in the Russian dandelion (Taraxacum koksaghyz). During the Second World War, the Russians managed to harvest rubber from the dandelion that is indigenous to south-east Kazakhstan. Its performance is comparable to natural rubber. The big question, however, is that can we take this dandelion and harvest it to mass produce rubber?
Thankfully, things are looking good for DRIVE4EU. After collecting the right strain of the plant, Ingrid van der Meer, coordinator of the project explains that they are making real progress.
"In the first EU project our scientists had to ride mules to the plains of Kazakhstan to find the right variety, which demanded a great deal of botanical knowledge. We have now made major progress in selecting the right lines in the offspring via molecular techniques. But we have also come a long way in the agronomical field. As of a year ago, we no longer have to harvest by hand and we are working hard on developing machinery for large-scale extraction."
The next phase will involve expand the test fields to six hectares from the current two. Although we are not out of the woods yet, Van der Meer believes a breakthrough will occur in the next five to ten years.
Let’s hope she is right.