John Gilbert Staff Editor
April 22, 2016

Remember Henry Ford’s Fordlandia, a social experiment set in a tropical rubber tree plantation? This isn’t a silly April Fools Day prank, it’s true: the forward thinking ecologically concerned scientists at Continental Tire are embracing the flowering dandelion weed once used by hippies to make hallucinogenic wine into a key component to the future of tires.

The team at Continental Tire looked to the dandelion as an alternative source of natural rubber. But before you start thinking you can harvest the dandelions from your lawn into a cash crop, think again. Continental isn’t using just any old dandelion but a specific Russian species. This is the only dandelion that can be used as an alternative source for natural rubber production. The roots of this dandelion species contain the natural rubber latex (the source for natural rubber used in tires), meaning supply will be steadier and easier to control leading to greater price stability. This crop is also much less sensitive to weather than the rubber tree.

“In agricultural terms, dandelions are an undemanding plant, growing in moderate climates, even in the northern hemisphere, and can be cultivated on land not suitable for food production,” according to Dr. Carla Recker, who heads the Continental team involved in the development of this super material. “This means that rubber production is conceivable near our tire factories, for instance, and the significantly shorter transport routes would also reduce CO2 emissions.”

Transporting rubber from South America or West Africa to North America and Europe for manufacturing is a long and costly journey that also contributes significantly to the output of CO2. If this part of the process can be consolidated to agricultural zones of the Americas and Europe, the economic and carbon emissions benefits would be a significant boon to the tire industry.

This particular dandelion can thrive in a large part of the world. The growth cycle for the Russian dandelion is approximately one year. Conversely, the rubber tree has a long-life cycle, where the first harvest could start seven years after planting. Also of note, the dandelions Continental is working with were optimized without the use of genetic engineering. So how close is Continental to making tires produced from dandelions available to consumers?

Dr. Peter Zmolek, director of research and development of passenger and light truck tires for Continental Tire in the Americas stated, “Our target is within the next five to 10 years. In the summer of 2014, Taraxagum tires were produced and tested under summer and winter conditions on our proving grounds in Germany and Sweden. The results were very encouraging and our continued development efforts are on track.”