Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Don't say it with flowers - wheel it!

I'm amused to read that a potential addition to existing natural and synthetic rubber sources has been found in, of all things, the dandelion!  The Telegraph reports:

Mention dandelion and a shudder wriggles down most gardeners’ spines. Scourge of lawns, borders, patios and allotments, they’re a major reason why we spend a fortune on weed killer or hours bent double, extracting their thong-like roots. Now, a species of Russian dandelion is set to become one of the most important plants on the planet, propping up civilisation with rubber made from the glutinous, milky sap found in its roots.

In July this year, Indian-Dutch company Apollo Vredestein rolled out the first prototype tyres produced from European-grown rubber. If tests go well, they hope to start full production in 2015. The dandelion, Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TKS), is one of three plants currently being investigated by various international consortia, made up of government agencies, big business and scientific research establishments, locked in a multi-million pound scramble to find alternatives to natural rubber.

. . .

Native to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and discovered in 1931, TKS is a foot-tall yellow-flowered dandelion. It will grow in a range of soils, but prefers the cool conditions of its homeland and similar locations, such as northern Europe.

During the Thirties, Stalin led a drive to make the Soviet Union independent of imported natural rubber. TKS soon caught the attention of Soviet scientists. With the outbreak of the Second World War it became strategically important. As rubber plantations fell into the hands of the Japanese, the US Emergency Rubber Programme trialed TKS in 28 states. It was also widely planted in Canada; in Britain experiments were conducted at Kew.

Although initially sceptical, preferring to rely on synthetic rubber, the Nazis began to farm Russian TKS in concentration camps, using forced labour.

Once post-war supplies of cheap natural rubber were restored, the industry was abandoned, although the Soviet Union continued research until Stalin’s death in 1953. China too, persevered, and produced their first tyres the same year.

Early on it was discovered that, although TKS produced rubber of comparable quality to Hevea brasiliensis, yield was variable. Spurred on by renewed global interest, this fuelled a search for the most productive wild forms. Aided by conventional plant breeding techniques, selection has raised yield from 1.4 per cent to 8.9 per cent of dry weight, with some clones now exceeding the 10 per cent target required for commercial use.

The advantage of TKS over other plants is that it has a wide climatic tolerance, can be grown as a short term or even annual crop, and harvested and processed mechanically. This enables it to be farmed according to need, which tree-sourced rubber cannot.

It also creates the sugar-substitute inulin as a by-product, and is being investigated as a potential biofuel.

There's more at the link.

This brings up all sorts of interesting questions.

  • Instead of retreading tires made from dandelion rubber, could they simply be sprinkled with fertilizer to restore themselves?  And for disposal purposes at the end of their useful life, could they simply be sprinkled with weedkiller?
  • Instead of 'putting the pedal to the metal', with dandelion tires, wouldn't one put the petal to the metal?
  • If a driver performs a burnout, will onlookers smell flowers instead of burning rubber?

I look forward with keen scientific interest to the answers to these questions . . .


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