Sunday, August 24, 2014
Where the dandelion hits the road
From a persistent weed to a promising source of rubber, the image of dandelions may soon take a turn for the better thanks to research by a Dutch biologist.
Dutch biologist Ingrid van der Meer often meets with disbelief when she talks about her work on dandelions and how it could secure the future of road transport.But what happens when your tires go to seed while your driving? And can you make wine from the discards?
The reaction is understandable, given most people regard the yellow flowers as pesky intruders in their gardens rather than a promising source of rubber for tires.
"People just think of it as a horrible weed and ask how can you get enough material for tires from just a small root," she said.
Her research team is competing with others across the world to breed a type of dandelion native to Kazakhstan whose taproot yields a milky fluid with tire-grade rubber particles in it.
Global tire makers such as industry leader Bridgestone Corp and No.4 player Continental AG believe they are in for rich pickings and are backing such research to the tune of millions of dollars.
Early signs are good. A small-scale trial by a U.S. research team found the dandelions delivered per-hectare rubber yields on a par with the best rubber-tree plantations in tropical Asia.
So within a decade, rather than being a backyard bane like their wild cousins, the new flowers might be seen in neat rows in hundreds of thousands of acres across Europe and the United States, where they can grow even in poor soil.
And they could have some interesting modifications. For instance, German researchers have bred the plants to grow to up to a foot (30 cm) in height, dwarfing many of their backyard cousins. They are also developing the dandelions with upright rather than flat-growing leaves - just so harvesting machines have something to grab on to.
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