Cooper Tire & Rubber Company — the Ohio-based parent company of a global family of companies that specialize in the design, manufacture, marketing and sales of passenger car and light truck tires — has completed tire builds using rubber derived from guayule plants and new guayule-related materials. The company says the tires are being evaluated by Cooper’s technical team using rigorous wheel, road and track tests, which are ongoing, but to date suggest tire performance that is at least equal to tires made of components derived from traditional rubber, derived from the Hevea rubber plant.
This development was reported by Cooper to its consortium partners — PanAridus, Arizona State University, Cornell University, and the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA-ARS) — as the group met recently in Maricopa, Arizona for its third annual meeting and progress report on their $6.9 million Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) grant, “Securing the Future of Natural Rubber — An American Tire and Bioenergy Platform from Guayule.” The consortium received the BRDI grant in 2012 from the USDA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to conduct research aimed at developing enhanced manufacturing processes for the production of solid rubber from the guayule plant as a biomaterial for tire applications, as well as evaluating the plant’s residual biomass for fuel applications. The consortium aims to harness biopolymers extracted from guayule as a replacement for synthetic rubbers and Hevea natural rubber used in the production of tires. It is also focused on genomic and agronomic development of guayule and the sustainability impact these biomaterial and bioenergy industries have on the American Southwest, where guayule is grown. The grant period ends late in the second quarter of 2017.
Cooper’s progress in tire technology under the grant has been aided by PanAridus’ success in manufacturing rubber using improved strains of guayule and deploying superior rubber extraction technology. Cooper, PanAridus and USDA-ARS have worked closely to identify key variables impacting rubber quality and controlling these factors during the rubber manufacturing process, resulting in compounds with properties that behave more like Hevea natural rubber than guayule isolated from other processes.
In addition to the advances in rubber manufacturing and tire technology, consortium members USDA-ARS and Cornell also reported significant progress in defining the guayule genome. Scientists may eventually be able to identify genes that can be tuned to improve qualities such as rubber yield, plant size, drought tolerance and other positive characteristics. Related advances have also been made in agronomics by consortium member USDA-ARS, including irrigation and direct seeding. These studies will help determine optimum conditions under which farmers can grow guayule crops to produce quantities sufficient for commercial use. ASU is evaluating the social, economic and environmental impact of the grant activities on all stakeholders with a focus on sustainable business practices.
“As the lead company in the consortium, we are extremely pleased with the progress that the group has made to advance guayule technology on all fronts,” said Chuck Yurkovich, SVP of Global Research and Development for Cooper. “The team is making rapid progress toward a commercial source of domestic natural rubber, and ultimately, tires made with guayule rubber.”
Cooper and its consortium aren’t the only ones exploring the viability of guayule as a biobased alternative to rubber: While fellow tire maker Bridgestone is partnering with biomaterials company Yulex Corporation to also develop the plant for use in tires, Yulex and outdoor apparel company Patagonia have developed it as a sustainable, plant-based replacement for neoprene - the petroleum-based material used to make wetsuits, which has a highly toxic manufacturing process. Now, not only is Patagonia moving toward making a suit entirely from its proprietary biorubber, it is making the material available to the rest of the surf industry.