Everyone knows that having all of your eggs in one basket is never wise. This very principle is driving an EU-backed initiative to find a natural alternative to the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, of which about 90% is grown in Southeast Asia.
Based on historical precedence and earlier research, the Russian dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz) has been singled out in an international project, DRIVE4EU, of which GEA is a key partner. The collective goal is to develop a reliable chain for production of not only rubber, but also inulin – both of which are used in products from diverse industry sectors.
The EU is committed to reducing its dependence on natural rubber resources in Asia and to finding a sustainable alternative. To this end, the EU chose in 2014 to co-finance the demonstration research project DRIVE4EU, which is coordinated by the Wageningen University & Research – the largest plant research institute in the Netherlands. Made up of professionals from biotechnology, breeding, agronomy, extraction & biorefinery and product manufacturing, DRIVE4EU is tasked with developing a European chain for the production and processing of natural rubber and inulin from Taraxacum kok-saghyz, otherwise known as TKS or Russian dandelion which is native to Kazakhstan.
DRIVE4EU was preceded by another EU funded project ending in 2012 that determined that TKS, which contains 4-6% rubber, yielded high quality natural rubber. Further positives are that it can be grown in other temperate regions as an annual crop and harvested mechanically.
Today, natural rubber is used in more than 40,000 products essential to the construction, medical and transportation industries. Natural rubber is particularly critical to the health of the EU automotive industry, especially tire manufacturing. With rubber consumption forecasted to increase significantly, market prices are also expected to rise. At present, demand is being met by increasing the acreage of rubber tree plantations, which is fraught with its own inherent sustainability issues, including deforestation and labor issues. The situation is made more precarious due to changing weather patterns and the threat of disease which could virtually wipe out the Asian rubber industry. And, synthetic rubber is simply not an option for many products.
Another major advantage of TKS is that up to 40% of its root biomass (when dried) is inulin, naturally occurring polysaccharides composed mainly of fructose units. Because it has unusually adaptable characteristics, inulin is increasingly being used in processed foods – particularly to replace sugar, fat and flour. Inulin also has many health benefits. In terms of its use in industry, non-hydrolyzed inulin can be directly converted to ethanol, which may have great potential for converting crops high in inulin into ethanol for fuel. Hydrolyzed inulin, mainly fructose, can be used to make polyethylene furanoate (PEF) which is used in the beverage bottling industry and is more sustainable than PET. The leftover root material and leaves can also be used for composting.
Picking up where the last EU project ended, DRIVE4EU kicked off work in 2014 and has until August 2018 to deliver and report on the following:
- Breeding of plant genotypes with high root biomass, high rubber and inulin yield
- Amplification of seed batches for agronomic tests and large scale demo field trials
- Optimized cultivation and harvest methods for TKS
- Ecological analysis of the gene flow between TKS and other, wild dandelion species
- Scaled-up and optimized extraction and refinery protocol for TKS natural rubber and inulin
- Testing and application of TKS natural rubber and inulin in end product uses
- Demonstration of the economic viability of the TKS production chain for natural rubber and inulin
GEA’s role, along with support from the DRIVE4EU partners, was to design a biorefinery process in which both rubber and inulin could be extracted on a pilot scale and to deliver large scale samples of dry rubber and inulin for product testing and analysis. The dandelions were grown at multiple locations, including Belgium, the Netherlands and Kazakhstan for testing and comparison, and after harvesting sent to GEA for extraction. As a first step, GEA developed plants and lines for processing the roots, using an adapted GEA decanter to separate the rubber, water and sugar-containing solids. Inulin extraction and purification were optimized using hot water cooking and centrifuging. In a second processing step, rubber extraction was optimized using high speed milling, with a special focus on extraction times, processing conditions and on dry rubber purification. Lastly, GEA was asked to look at processing options for waste streams from both rubber and inulin.
At present, the extracted rubber is with partner manufacturers to be turned into products which will then undergo testing and evaluation. One of these, Vredestein (Apollo Tyres), has produced the first bicycle tires which were debuted at the Eurobike trade fair in Friedrichshafen, Germany, in early 2017. The tires are showing promising performance in tests, for example in grip, compared to traditional compounds. Studies are currently exploring whether this tire can be mass-produced. Partner QEW Engineered Rubber is producing rubber plates for pumps and gaskets for testing. They are also using the rubber to create a material that provides buffers in buildings in the event of earthquakes. Inulin syrup is also available and will be further developed and tested.
The final DRIVE4EU report, including an economic analysis of the entire production chain, will be available at the end of August 2018.
DRIVE4EU partners: Apollo Tyres (Netherlands); GEA (Germany); ILVO (Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research) (Belgium); InExCB.KZ (Republic of Kazakhstan); Institute of Botany (Czech Republic); Joanneum Research (Austria); KeyGene (Netherlands); Mitas (Czech Republic); NETZSCH-Feinmahltechnik GmbH (Germany); QEW Engineered Rubber (Netherlands); Rusthoeve (Netherlands); Tereos Syral (France) and Wageningen University & Research (Netherlands)