Nearly all the world’s natural rubber comes from Hevea brasiliensis, immortalized by Cole Porter as the rubber tree plant. Relying on one plant for this critical raw material makes many companies nervous—especially tire companies, which account for nearly 60 percent of global natural rubber consumption. That’s why Bridgestone, along with other tire makers, are increasingly interested in the potential of a perennial shrub native to southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico called guayule.
Guayule produces rubber that’s chemically identical to hevea but requires entirely different processing. Hevea trees need roughly 5 years to begin producing rubber but can be tapped like maple trees for about 25 years, says Bill Niaura, director of new business development for Bridgestone (5108:JP), which is set to open its very own Biorubber Process Research Center in Mesa, Ariz. to study guayule grown at its nearby farm.
Guayule grows for two years before it’s bailed, crushed, and processed to extract latex. Each plant is only 5 percent to 8 percent rubber by weight, but Bridgestone hopes genetic fiddling will improve these odds. “If you look at wild corn, a fully mature ear is only the size of your index finger,” says Niaura. “And you know what commercial corn looks like.”
Recently there’s been a glut of global natural rubber and a corresponding dip in price, but Bridgestone remains determined to move forward with its guayule experiments and eventually reduce its dependence on foreign suppliers. “It’s not a sustainable situation,” says Niaura. “With hevea production so geographically concentrated, there are a whole host of factors we can’t control. … All it takes is the wrong trans-Pacific flight and somebody walking in the wrong dirt on one end to be a disease vector.”
Tire companies aren’t the first to look into hevea alternatives. During World War II, the U.S. government created the Emergency Rubber Project, employing more than 1,000 scientists and tens of thousands of laborers to develop several plants into viable rubber sources. That project was eventually shut down, but the government is currently working with Cooper and others on guayule improvements and production.
Earlier this year, a startup called Yulex collaborated with Patagonia to produce a wetsuit, which the New York Times calls ”the first widely available consumer product derived from Yulex guayule rubber.” Patagonia is now urging other companies to start using the sustainable biorubber in place of petroleum-based neoprene to make everything from sneakers to yoga mats.
Bridgestone hopes its efforts to understand and develop the guayule plant will allow more American farmers to start growing the crop. The tire maker plans to be using guayale in its tires by the early 2020s.