As a weed scientist, Nevin Lawrence has become an expert at killing things, but getting them to grow can be a challenge.
“Part of my job is to grow some weird stuff,” said Lawrence. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever grown.”
What is “this?” A dandelion. Yes, really.
Recently, Lawrence has trying to grow something for a project called Biofuel and Rubber Research and their Agricultural Linkages or BARRAL. The project is funded by the Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is led by Ohio State University. NU and Oregon State University are also involved.
The project aims to develop Taraxacum kok-saghyz, or in layman’s terms, a rubber dandelion. The hope is that researchers can figure out how to grow the plant, which is native to Kazakhstan, in the United States as an alternative source of rubber.
According to the University of Nebraska, the United States imports 1.5 million tons of natural rubber per year for manufacturing as well as finished goods.
“Right now, almost all the worlds rubber comes from South East Asia,” said Lawrence.
The rubber comes from a tree that is usually grown on large plantations. To harvest it, the trees are tapped and the sap, called latex, is collected.
“It’s produced a lot like maple syrup,” said Lawrence.
It can take upwards of six years before the latex can be harvested and it can’t be harvested daily, said Lawrence, and the process is labor intensive.
That, combined with increasing demands for rubber to be used in manufacturing and biofuel production, has led to a global shortage.
This isn’t the first time the U.S. has faced challenges with meeting rubber related needs.
“During World War II, there was a fear that the Japanese would block the rubber production from leaving Southeast Asia,” said Lawrence. “That probably would have won the war actually.”
Rubber was essential — the construction of a military airplane used a half ton of rubber, a take needed about one ton and a battleship required 75 tons, according to the American Chemical Society. Additionally, each member of the military required around 32 pounds of rubber for footwear, clothing and equipment.
Researchers began looking into alternatives, eventually producing synthetic rubber. Lawrence said that while synthetic rubber has its uses, it can’t always be substituted for the real thing.
That’s where BARRAL and scientists like Lawrence come in.
Over the years, a few different crops with the potential for rubber production have been tested, but the dandelion seems to be the most promising, particularly in the panhandle.
“We have sandy soil and we have experience growing root crops,” said Lawrence.
Even with experience, the task has been a challenging one. Last season, there were about two acres of dandelion plots and next year there we’ll likely be more
“The germination has been very poor,” said Lawrence. “Some are more successful than others because they’re experimental plots.”
In some well controlled experimental plots, scientists have been able to equal the quality and quantity that could be harvested from Brazilian rubber trees over the course of a year, Lawrence said.
He said the researchers are trying to figure out ways to improve the soil’s ability to hold moisture.
“Once we maintain consistent germination from soil amendment treatments, then we can figure out when the best time is to plant and harvest,” said Lawrence.
Once harvested, the dandelion roots are shipped off to an experimental extraction and processing plant in Ohio. The roots are then ground up into smaller pieces before going through an extraction process.
Eventually, the dandelions could become another crop option for local producers but Lawrence said it’s going to be awhile.
Even after researchers determine how to grow the dandelion consistently, there will be other hurdles to overcome.
“We still need to have a market and the infrastructure to sell it,” said Lawrence. “We would need to figure out how to grow them so they’d be more economical than exporting from South East Asia and we would need to have domestic plants to produce it, then we’d need manufacturers that would be willing to buy it.”