Your next set of wheels could be made of weeds

Conservation Magazine, ©2009 The Economist Newspaper Ltd, London

Other than being an ingredient of upscale salads, dandelions are pretty useless plants. But one species, Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TKS), may yet make the big time. It produces molecules of rubber in its sap, and—if two research programs, one in Germany and one in America, come to fruition—it could supplement or even replace the traditional rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis.

Despite the invention of synthetic rubbers, there is often no good substitute for the real thing. This is because natural-rubber molecules have a more regular structure than artificial ones. For this reason, around one-fifth of an average car tire is made of natural rubber. Moreover, the price of synthetic rubber is tied to that of the oil from which it is made, rendering it vulnerable to changing oil prices.

Because oil is likely to become more costly in the future, natural rubber looks to be an attractive alternative, from an economic point of view as well as an engineering one.

Natural rubber has problems, though. Growing Hevea in the Americas is hard. In Asia, planting new rubber trees often means cutting down rainforest. And trees, being large, take time to grow to the point where they can yield a crop. A smaller plant that could be harvested for its rubber thus has obvious appeal.

Which is where TKS comes in. Dandelions are robust, fast-growing plants that can be pulled up for processing and resown easily, possibly yielding two harvests a year. If they could be turned into usable crops, they could outstrip even Hevea. (read more)