Russian dandelion as an alternative source for natural rubber

Natural rubber is in great demand, which will only grow in the following years. Experts fear that there is threatening to be a shortage, as there was after World War II. But while natural rubber is almost exclusively sourced from the rubber tree, this is not the only plant producing it. A European project called DRIVE4EU is looking at a completely different source of rubber: the Russian dandelion.

Rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) grow only in South East Asia and a small part of Africa, both of which are vulnerable areas. Trade routes are often cut off because of wars. Many farmers exchange rubber trees for palm oil, as that is more lucrative. In addition, the rubber tree itself is threatened by a destructive fungal disease. Combined with the increasing demand for natural rubber, a vital ingredient in many products, a shortage seems to be just around the corner.

Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. In a previous European project called EU-PEARLS, the Russian dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz, also called Kazakh dandelion or rubber root) was appointed as a viable alternative for the rubber tree. The root of this flower contains 15 per cent latex, the raw material to make rubber.

The Russian dandelion, native to Kazakhstan, was cultivated in the Soviet Union as a domestic source of rubber in the 1930s to 50s, and after World War II to help combat the rubber shortage in Europe. Because of the invention of synthetic rubber and the higher yields of rubber per hectare from the rubber tree, the dandelion was mostly forgotten.

The threat of another shortage of natural rubber has sparked a renewed interest in the Russian dandelion. The PEARLS project proved that rubber from this plant had at least the same quality of that of the rubber tree, proving it is a viable alternative.

The new project of DRIVE4EU is currently looking at ways to cultivate the plant in the necessary quantities at competitive prices with rubber tree rubber. The researchers calculated that an area the size of Austria is needed to meet the world’s demand in rubber. In addition to rubber, however, the root also produces inulin, a sugar that could be used in non-food applications, like making PEF, the green alternative to PET, or turned into bioethanol, while the remaining plant mass could be used to produce biogas.

The DRIVE4EU consortium consists of eight industrial partners and five research organizations from six EU countries and Kazakhstan that bring together a wide knowledge and expertise, from bioscience to product development. For more about the project, check out the website or watch the video below (Dutch with English subtitles).

Photos: Wikimedia / via