The U.S. automaker is interested in substituting synthetic rubber used in plastic parts such as cupholders, floor mats and interior trim with natural, domestically grown rubber from Taraxacum kok-saghyz, or TKS -- a plant native to the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and commonly known as Russian dandelion.
OARDC crop scientists and engineers have been working during the past few years on developing a commercially viable crop from TKS seeds and an effective way to extract rubber from the plant's fleshy roots -- which can contain 15% or more of the sticky substance. The better-performing plants are now grown in greenhouses, high tunnels (plastic-covered structures) and a 2-acre field on the Wooster campus. Plans for larger plantations and a pilot-scale processing facility are underway.
"We're always looking for new sustainable materials to use in our vehicles that have a smaller carbon footprint to produce and can be grown locally," Ford research engineer Angela Harris says. "Synthetic rubber is not a sustainable resource, so we want to minimize its use in our vehicles when possible. Dandelions have the potential to serve as a great natural alternative to synthetic rubber in our products."
While OARDC will grow and provide the rubber, Ford will perform its own testing for characteristics such as strength, softness, impact resistance, durability, aging resistance, elasticity, memory and others, said Katrina Cornish, endowed chair in bio-based emergent materials at OARDC. According to Ford, TKS rubber could potentially be used as a modifier to help improve the impact strength of plastics.
"It's strange to see weeds being grown in perfectly manicured rows in a greenhouse, but these dandelions could be the next sustainable material in our vehicles," Harris says.
In addition to TKS, Ford is looking into the use of guayule (a southwestern U.S. shrub) as a source of natural rubber. Before joining OARDC in 2010, Cornish had developed and commercialized technology to obtain rubber and other industrial projects from guayule.
"The TKS rubber project is an excellent example of a broader research agenda looking at bioproducts and bioenergy and how they can contribute to jobs, economic development and industry engagement in Ohio," says Bill Ravlin, OARDC associate director and principal investigator in the TKS project.
The TKS project is funded by a $3 million Third Frontier grant from the state of Ohio and a $380,000 grant from the Department of Energy. Project partners include the Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center, the University of Akron, Bridgestone Americas Center for Technology and Research, Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, Veyance Technologies Inc., and now Ford. Also involved are Oregon State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.