Natural Rubber: Viable Industrial BioEconomy Crop, It’s Going to Be Big
by Katrina Cornish and Corinne Young (re:chem/Bioemergent Materials, The Ohio State University/Biofuels Digest/Lee Enterprises) Bioenergy/biofuel/platform chemical biomasses, whether grown (crops) or collected (forestry waste and municipal wastes of various kinds), still struggle with commercial competitiveness against the low cost, enormous scale, and market barriers presented by mature fossil fuels juggernauts. The answer is obvious and clear – we need industrial crops that can produce diverse products, and support smart scale-up and deployment with high margin, low volume, chemicals and materials, that can cross into the subsidized larger volume-commodity products such as fuels. We need to be real, and learn from the hard knock lessons of the last decade.
So, where to start to compete with petroleum? How about with Natural Rubber crops? The History Channel, Modern Marvels series, deemed rubber the world’s fourth most important natural resource after air, water and petroleum.
A high value primary product is essential to the non-subsidized commercial viability of bioenergy/fuel/platform chemicals from bio-feedstocks. Pharmaceuticals, specialty chemicals and bioactives are generally small market niches that can seed scale-up to larger chemical markets and eventually to the associated economies of scale for transportation fuels. The balance of increasing scale with decreasing cost of goods must be maintained during scale up – and a single step from premium niche to commodity is not possible.
Alternative rubber crops present a viable opportunity, because they can progress from addressing un-met needs, through premium existing markets, mid-range and finally to commodity latex and rubber products. Also, the rubber commodity market is a well-known example of an existing commercially viable balance between biobased and fossil feedstock derived synthetic versions, and premium niche to low cost commodity applications. Rubber is an essential material, and natural rubber (NR) is a critical agricultural material.
There is currently no significant source of NR in the US although both guayule (Parthenium argentatum) for the semi-arid southwest and rubber dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz) for the northern states are under development. While both have attracted considerable industrial support from global tire companies, their co-development as energy crops is in its infancy.
Similar to rubber dandelion, residual guayule bagasse can also be hydrolyzed and the sugars used to produce fuels. READ MORE
Bridgestone and Versalis Partnering to Expand Guayule Research Efforts (Bridgestone/PR Newswire)
Bridgestone backs guayule as natural rubber source (Rubber and Plastics News)
NMSU collaborating in Sustainable Bio-economy for Arid Regions project (High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal)