By LOU WILIN

STAFF WRITER

At a casual glance, it might sound like mad science: Spending millions of dollars researching how to make a dandelion more fruitful and prolific.

But it’s really not the nightmare we might have thought. These dandelions are a distant, feeble cousin of the robust one we try to purge from our lawns.

These dandelions, containing rubber in their roots, could someday have a future with Cooper Tire.

The TK (taraxacum kok-saghyz) dandelion plant, originally from Kazakhstan, is the focus of research at Ohio State University, with financial and technical support from Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

The rubber dandelion has potential for tiremaking, said Chuck Yurkovich, Cooper’s senior vice president for global research and development.

U.S. tiremakers have long sought a domestic alternative to Asian-grown rubber. The rubber dandelion can grow in Canada and the northern U.S., from Ohio to Oregon.

But this smaller dandelion, with leathery, blue-green leaves, is perhaps five to 10 years from getting the traction needed to go from laboratories to tire factories, said Bruce Caldwell, program director for the Program of Excellence in Natural Rubber Alternatives.

“The big issue in terms of getting commercially-viable yields across the northern states is weed control. If you’re going to farm it, you must have chemical weed control like all the other crops we grow,” said Katrina Cornish, Ohio research scholar and endowed chair of bioemergent materials at Ohio State University, and technical director of the Program of Excellence in Natural Rubber Alternatives.

Weed control is a complicated, delicate matter with this feeble, easily overrun flora.

“How do you kill the dandelions without killing the dandelions?” Cornish said.

The rubber dandelion “tends to come up and then stop and have a look around,” she said. “Well, by that time the Ohio weeds — which do not stop and look around — have got it.”

Researchers are studying how herbicides currently available could be combined and their application rightly timed with the age and development of the rubber dandelion, she said.

So, the rubber dandelion is not ready yet for the large-scale production required for turning out millions of tires. But perhaps it can be ushered there in baby steps, through smaller products that don’t require the stringent performance specifications of a tire.

“How do you get to enough acreage and enough processing capacity to feed a tire line?” Cornish asked rhetorically. “You’ve got to go into small-volume, high-niche markets where you can capitalize on, ‘Would you pay another buck a pound, or another 10 bucks a pound’ so you can put dandelion rubber in your shoes for example, or dandelion rubber in something else, that you would pay a little bit more because it’s dandelion and made in the U.S.”

“Of course, the big tire companies are looking at the competitive market price, and if you’ve only got 10 acres of dandelions, that’s not going to be made into tires,” she said.

“It’s the scaleability that has always been a big challenge in alternative rubber commercialization,” Cornish said. “How do you get enough acres to make entry into a tire market possible?”

The Ohio State University professor has other ideas.

“We should be making little key chains with Brutus Buckeye on them, you know, that sort of thing. Those sorts of toys, or ‘Look what I’ve got. This is made of dandelion!’ to start with,” Cornish said.

Trinkets, even sports shoes, containing dandelion rubber, might be the way to build up to the scale of dandelion production needed for the tire market, she said.

“Cooper Tire is ready, willing and able to use these rubbers if they become available in sufficient quantity,” Cornish said. “They are very interested in these. They also do understand the issue of scaleability.”

Wilin: 419-427-8413 Send an E-mail to Lou Wilin

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