Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Is natural rubber bouncing back?

by Eric Carlson, CPP

In today’s age of plenty, there are many things that keep the world turning to which we give scant thought. Times have not always been so plentiful though. During World War II, for example, many materials became scarce; one of them was rubber. Fortunately, after many years of development, synthetic rubber started to become commercially viable and available during the early part of the war. (This was especially fortunate for the Allies, as the Axis powers controlled almost all of the world’s natural rubber plantations.) Synthetic rubber was and still is mostly synthesized from petroleum products.

As an avid fan of Science News magazine, I recently read their article on “new” potential sources of natural latex, the plant sap which is the basis for rubber. I learned that rubber tree plantations cannot be located in Central and South America because of a fungus that attacks dense stands of rubber trees. Only in Southeast Asia (where 90% of natural latex originates) are there rubber tree plantations capable of sufficient density to be commercially viable.

What would happen if the natural sources of latex were dramatically rationed? Why, you might ask, is there such a concern for natural sources of latex? Why have large governments around the world begun substantial funding for programs to identify new sources of latex?

The answer, in part, is that rubber from natural latex is critical to everyone’s supply chain. Apparently, the natural latex from rubber trees contains trace chemicals which make the resulting rubber more heat resistant. For this reason, it is preferred to synthetic rubber for many applications, including aircraft and truck tires. (Refer to the inset chart.)

With the cost of petroleum on the rise, and concerns about the sole sourcing of raw materials, companies and governments alike have their renewed interest in finding alternate natural rubber sources. While many plants produce small quantities of latex, two forms have gained recent popularity:
  1. Kok-sagyz (pronounced “coke-suh-GEEZ”), a dandelion from Kazakhstan; and 
  2. Guayule (pronounced “gway-OO-lay”), a shrub from the U.S. Southwest. 
Another option has been developed by DuPont. The company has developed a process for growing isoprene using E. coli bacteria. The E. coli are fed sugar, which has its own political drawbacks as a feedstock.

Until any of these options becomes commercially viable, you can bet that every time you ship a package using your favorite overnight carrier, the tires on their vehicles depend on the natural rubber latex from ParĂ¡ rubber trees.

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