Can the Stuff in Desert Shrubs Be Used for Natural Rubber Tires?

Demand for natural rubber tires is on the rise. Can a desert plant be the answer?

There might be a Schoolhouse Rock cartoon or a Mister Rogers' Neighborhood segment on how rubber is turned into play balls and tires and such.

We'll look into that, but until then Bridgestone is developing a way to turn a rubber-based, sagebrush-like plant from the desert into natural rubber tires.

According to USA Today, the Nashville-based tire company is looking for new ways to develop its line of tires to save on costs and to eschew the recent rubber tree crisis in South America.

Au Naturale Approach

About 100 years ago, American industrialists tried to use the same method to create rubber-based products, but to no avail. Synthetic rubber tires hit production and we've been driving on them ever since, but demand for natural rubber tires has climbed and tire companies are trying to accommodate.

However, tropical parasites in Brazil where rubber trees are harvested are literally eating away at the source and rubber plantations in Southeast Asia are ruining water quality.

Bridgestone's deal with polymer maker Versalis of Milan will focus on developing a sagebrush-like plant known as guayule for commercial harvests. It'll be a few years before this desert rubber can meet the demand it has now and produce 44 pounds per mid-sized vehicle. Natural rubber tires have been lauded for their strength, elasticity, and steering ability.

Sustainable natural rubber tires have been on the minds of those in the auto industry lately. In fact, General Motors Corp. announced partnerships with the world's four largest tire makers (Bridgestone, Continental, Goodyear, and Michelin) last year. The industry as a whole is looking to find new rubber supply plants to ease development pressure abroad.

Desert Dwellers

So, what is guayule? It's a native plant seen throughout Mexico and desert parts of the U.S. If you've driven down the I-10 to Los Angeles you've probably seen a billion of these babies blowing in the wind. Bridgestone is not the only one doing something similar. Michelin is thinking up ways to extract rubber from a Russian dandelion. The game has changed, people.