HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C.An alternative, sustainable domestic source of natural rubber (NR) may be as little as a decade away, thanks to intensive research by Bridgestone Americas.
A Bridgestone Americas executive made that prediction at the 31st annual Clemson University Global Tire Industry Conference in Hilton Head.
Bill Niaura, Bridgestone Americas director of new business development, provided an update on his company's efforts to commercialize guayule, a desert shrub native to Mexico and the southwestern U.S.
Developing guayule on a commercial basis is a huge challenge, he told conference attendees.
There is no existing U.S. natural rubber industry. We are starting on that journey, and there are technical challenges that need to be addressed.
Bridgestone Americas dedicated the Bridgestone Biorubber Process Research Center in Mesa, Ariz., last September, about a year after it opened its Agro Operation Guayule Research Farm in Eloy, Ariz.
The farm provides rubber for the pilot guayule processing plant at the research center, with pilot-scale guayule rubber production planned for this year.
Bridgestone is developing guayule because NR sourcing as it exists now is a chancy enterprise, according to Mr. Niaura.
Natural rubber is our single largest raw material purchase, accounting for more than 25 percent, he said.
But it has a poor business model as far as supply is concerned. Hevea trees are cloned, genetically identical plants, genetically susceptible to the same diseases.
The narrow geographic distribution of Hevea threatens supply instability due to political unrest, climate change and an uneven supply-demand balance. It's a market-based commodity that has a huge impact on profitability in a low-margin business, he said.
There are more than 2,000 plants besides Hevea that produce rubber latex, but by far the most promising are guayule and the Russian dandelion, according to Mr. Niaura.
While both guayule and Russian dandelions are promising NR sources, Bridgestone believes guayule is the better bet, he said, because the tire maker has a history with the cultivation of guayule, and lots of data on the shrub.
Also, there's a problem with dandelionshow do you keep weeds out? he asked.
Guayule has been harvested in the U.S. since pre-Columbian times, when Native Americans chewed its sap to make balls for their games, according to Mr. Niaura.
At the turn of the 20th century, several companies along the Rio Grande harvested wild guayule for rubber. However, the wild plants were depleted rapidly, and the beginning of the Mexican Revolution forced the guayule companies to close.
There was some production of guayule rubber in California and Arizona in the 1920s by a company called Intercontinental Rubber Co., Mr. Niaura said. But the biggest guayule project before the 1980s was the Emergency Rubber Project during World War II, when government researchers planted 32,000 acres of the shrub in Arizona and Texas, he said.
Unfortunately, that acreage was disked under when the war ended because the government decided to back the development of synthetic rubber instead.
Mr. Niaura said that was probably an unfortunate decision.
He called NR an indispensable material, adding, Our industry has been trying since World War II to reproduce it synthetically, but we haven't succeeded.
Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., the predecessor of Bridgestone Americas, gained major experience with guayule when it joined the U.S. Department of Defense and the Gila River Indian Community in a guayule development project in Sacaton, Ariz., in the 1980s.
Gila River was the basis of the data showing the validity of guayule as a viable alternative source of natural rubber, Mr. Niaura said.
Bridgestone's research into the guayule plant concentrates on plant genetics, process quality and rubber yield, he said.
Because different guayule strains are so diversethe plant can reproduce both sexually and asexually, depending on varietyplant breeding is especially difficult, according to Mr. Niaura.
Yet this diversity assures the vitality and resilience of the guayule plant.
Guayule is only 5 percent latex by weight, so he said Bridgestone must concentrate on finding markets for the shrub's pine tar-like resins and the bagasse, or woody part of the plant, to make it commercially viable.
We have to find the best value for those products. Energy is the low-hanging fruit, either for someone else's use or onsite. It's easy to do, but rather low on the profitability rung.
Using guayule bagasse and resins to make composite boards is a promising application, according to Mr. Niaura. Termites will starve before they eat boards like that.
Firestone Natural Rubber Co., the branch of Bridgestone Americas that runs the company's Hevea plantation in Liberia, has no involvement in the guayule program, Mr. Niaura said. Bridgestone is not considering the creation of anything like a guayule plantation, but instead hopes to attract independent farmers to grow the crop.
Guayule agriculture is feasible, but it's a lot of work to turn it into a true agribusiness, he said.
A lot of hard labor is involved in growing the crop, but it yields a free-flowing latex that is easy to collect.
The various challenges in developing guayule means it will be the 2020s at the earliest before it's used for tires in wide distribution, according to Mr. Niaura. Bridgestone's ultimate goal, however, is to replace 30 percent of the Hevea content in its tires with guayule rubber, he said.