Wageningen UR is working hard to make sure that, in the near future, natural rubber will no longer need to be imported from faraway countries. Scientists from Wageningen UR are coordinating the European Drive4EU research programme, where they work together with partners on establishing production of rubber from Russian dandelion in Europe. This is a response to the imminent shortage of natural rubber in the world and aims to make the EU less dependent on imports. The project brings together private sector companies and research institutions from seven countries in close cooperation.
“DRIVE4EU is a demonstration project and a partial continuation of the EU-PEARLS consortium, which was finished at the end of 2012,” says Ingrid van der Meer, a scientist at Wageningen University and coordinator of the EU project. “EU-PEARLS looked at two plants as potential sources of rubber: guayule and Russian dandelion. While the desert plant guayule was, like the dandelion, found to contain quality latex, it only grows in very hot regions, such as along the Mediterranean, while the dandelion is also suitable for cultivation in the colder climes of north-western Europe. The extraction of rubber from dandelion is also easier, which is why we settled on it as our plant of choice.”
Thick roots full of latex
A Russian dandelion contains up to fifteen per cent latex. A hectare of dandelions today delivers at most 200 kg of rubber. “The yield can, however, be improved through breeding and enhanced cultivation methods,” Van der Meer underlines.
An important part of the breeding research focuses on the development of thicker roots, as this is where most of the latex accumulates. To this end, the Russian variant is crossed with larger wild dandelion species. “By subsequently crossing these hybrids again, we get a dandelion with thicker roots which supplies more rubber. Our ultimate goal is 1,000 kilograms per hectare, but this will take a decade or more to achieve.”
Tyres are the biggest users of natural rubber, consuming seventy per cent of the world production, which is concentrated in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. A tyre manufacturer has now demonstrated that latex from dandelions is strong enough to make durable tyres. Their grip on wet roads could even be better than that of conventional tyres.
In addition to tyres, natural rubber is also used for surgical gloves and tubing for medical applications. It is deployed in construction for wall cladding, roofing, flooring, sealing and in adhesives and coatings. All in all, more than 40,000 products are made from natural rubber.
Inulin for PET bottles
In addition to rubber, the EU project also aims to produce inulin from the dandelion. Once the rubber is extracted, the plant contains forty per cent inulin, a low-calorie sweetener that is currently produced from chicory. This sugar molecule is processed by the food industry in syrups and added to yogurt drinks as a prebiotic. “But this is a small market,” Van der Meer underlines. “We prefer to split the fructose polymer for conversion to furan chemicals. These can, for instance, be used to make biodegradable plastic bottles – a much larger market.”
The combination of latex and inulin make cultivation of Russian dandelion economically attractive. “The two markets fit well together,” Van der Meer explains. “Together with the private sector, we are now working hard to set up production and processing chains. Partners who use natural rubber or inulin as raw materials are welcome to join us."