Project could breathe new life into old crop

Andrew D. Brosig/The Business Farmer Integrated Weed Management Specialist Dr. Nevin Lawrence holds a tray of rubber dandelions May 3 in one of the research greenhouses at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottslbuff, Neb. Lawrence is part of a national team studying the plants as a source of natural rubber as well as possibly an alternative crop for the Panhandle and other parts of the country.

SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. – The humble dandelion, long the bane of suburban homeowners and lawn care specialists alike, may find new life – and new appreciation – as a boon crop in the United States.

It all depends on the results of a cross-country research project Nevin Lawrence, University of Nebraska Integrated Weed Management Specialist at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff, is working on with researchers at Ohio State University and Oregon State University.

The research isn’t actually focused on the common dandelion, who’s bright yellow flowers and powder-puff seed heads grace – or deface – lawns across the country. The subject of this study is a special variety, which produces a sap which contains a very special product – natural rubber.

All of the world’s natural rubber for everything from car tires to soles for shoes to belts for industry comes from a handful of plantations located in southeast Asia. The plantations moved there decades ago after a disease wiped out the plantations in the native land of the Brazilian rubber tree.

“It’s harvested similarly to maple syrup,” Lawrence said. “You hammer a spigot into a tree and collect (the sap) in buckets. It’s very labor intensive, very difficult.”

Research on rubber from dandelions is focused on the root, which will grow to about the size of a smaller carrot by the time they’re ready to harvest, he said. 

Initial research into the rubber dandelions really came into its own during World War II. Because the only sources of rubber were under threat of Japanese blockades, U.S. officials were worried.

Synthetic forms of rubber were available, but they aren’t as high a quality as natural rubber, Lawrence said. Only natural rubber tires can stand up to the extremes of supporting aircraft – first bombers and fighters in World War II and jet airliners today, he said.

The initial research focused on three areas: Growing Brazilian rubber trees in Florida, a specific species of desert shrub which also produced a sap with the necessary compounds and the rubber dandelions, also knows as the Russian dandelion, which is native to the Central Asian nation Kazakhstan. 

Russian dandelions are far from being the next boom crop, but there’s indications it could be an alternative crop sometime in the future, Lawrence said. Right now, the research is focusing on solving a couple of pretty significant problems, particularly here in the Wyo-Braska region.

First, when planted in the greenhouse, germination isn’t a problem – everything planted starts to grow, Lawrence said. But, the seeds are so small, they’re susceptible to the cold and very sensitive to moisture, or a lack thereof. 

“In the greenhouse, 99 percent of the seed germinates,” Lawrence said. “In the field, it’s considerably lower – 50 percent all the way down to 3 to 5 percent.

“The small seeds … are not as good at dealing with environmental conditions. They need to be planted very shallow, but they dry out quickly. Even with overhead irrigation, we can’t put on enough water to keep the seed wet.”

One advantage to the plant – which makes it attractive for the western Nebraska, eastern Wyoming region, is it’s pretty hardy, once it gets established. Russian dandelions are drought, heat and cold tolerant naturally, which could make it a good fit for the region.

The project is funded currently by a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. DOE is involved, Lawrence said, because the byproducts of the rubber extraction can be processed further to make ethanol. The grant is split between the Nebraska Panhandle and Ohio State University.

“It’s more than just the agronomics,” Lawrence said. “We’re working on improving the germ-plasm through breeding and the processing. The bulk of the money went to Ohio State, with only one-third focused on the agronomics.”

The plants are also susceptible to weed infestations. With typical row crops, once they grow beyond a certain point, the plant itself will block the sun from any growing weeds, effectively choking off the invaders, Lawrence said.

Not so with the rubber dandelions, which aren’t much bigger than most of the weeds which cause them problems. Part of Lawrence’s task, then, is finding effective methods of weed control which won’t kill off the desired plants.

Despite all the difficulties, it’s still a fascinating project, Lawrence said. And, in one specific case – a farmer in Ohio – it’s working. He’s successfully producing about 50 acres of the Russian dandelions specifically for use by Ohio State researchers as they work on the next step – the best way to process the root to make rubber.

Some of that rubber currently being produced by Ohio State researchers has already gone into making products – mostly bicycle tires and other smaller items, Lawrence said.
“We’ve proved it works,” he said. “We can do it, it’s just a matter of getting the agronomics together.

Another production method being looked at involves hydroponics – growing the dandelions in a liquid nutrient bath. The advantage to the hydroponic method is, as the root reaches usable size, it can just be trimmed off, then allowed to keep growing.

This is definitely a long-term project, Lawrence said. He noted both wheat and corn – two of the most common crops in the region – took thousands of years of manipulation and breeding from their wild origins to become production crops.

“What we’re basically doing is taking a wild plant and trying to domesticate it from scratch,” he said. “There’s a lot that goes into that.

“Some plants, you can breed all you want and they’re not going to turn into a corn plant,” Lawrence said. “We’re not sure yet if this has the capacity to be a crop.”

The other side of the coin is the economics – the desire of companies to change how they do things currently. Ideally, once Russian dandelions become a viable crop somewhere, companies could build processing facilities to produce the natural rubber for end-users and contract with farmers to grow the dandelion.

The researchers across the country have high hopes for the humble dandelions. But it’s still a long time in the future, Lawrence said.

“Theoretically, it could be economically ground-breaking for the region,” he said. “We’re just not there yet.

“It’s a nice story to tell – moving to a production system, replacing farmland instead of rain forests,” Lawrence said. “It’s a nice story to tell but, at the end of the day, if it’s not profitable for the companies they’re not going to do it.”

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Andrew D. Brosig/The Business Farmer Integrated Weed Management Specialist Dr. Nevin Lawrence holds a tray of rubber dandelions May 3 in one of the research greenhouses at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottslbuff, Neb. Lawrence is part of a national team studying the plants as a source of natural rubber as well as possibly an alternative crop for the Panhandle and other parts of the country.


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