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Rubber from desert shrub OK for tires

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    Rubber made from guayule is suitable for making tires.


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    A field of guayule, a plant Cooper Tire is studying for use in making rubber.


Rubber made from guayule is suitable for making tires.


FINDLAY — Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. has proven it’s possible to make car tires exclusively with rubber derived from a domestically grown desert shrub, a potential breakthrough as the industry looks to insulate itself against volatile pricing of foreign-sourced natural tree rubber and synthetic rubber made from petroleum.

Cooper announced the results of the five-year government-funded research project Thursday. Cooper was the lead partner in a consortium that included two universities, an agricultural company, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

RELATED: Cooper makes progress with guayuleCooper tests promising for rubber made in U.S.

“Based on our findings, Cooper could use guayule rubber in tire production tomorrow if enough material was available to meet our production needs at a competitive price,” Chuck Yurkovich, Cooper’s senior vice president of global research and development, said in a statement.

Guayule — pronounced why-YOU-lee — is a stout shrub that grows wild in the arid climate of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. When crushed, it yields a sap similar to latex that can be made into rubber.

The Findlay-based tire maker went through a methodical process in which it plugged guayule-sourced rubber into various parts of a car tire, ultimately building a tire that used no synthetic or traditional natural rubber. Cooper said rigorous testing of the 100-percent guayule tires found they offered overall performance that was at least on par with conventional tires. In some areas — including wet handling, wet braking, and rolling resistance — the guayule tires actually performed better.

Rolling resistance is essentially energy lost to friction and drag. As such, lower rolling resistance from tires can mean better fuel economy.

At least for now, there won’t be a wholesale switch to guayule rubber. Cooper’s findings essentially are a proof-of-concept. Mr. Yurkovich said big steps are still necessary for the industry to actually adopt the technology.

“To make this happen, the combined effort of government, agriculture, and industry is needed to grow the plants and create large-scale manufacturing operations to produce the rubber for use in the tire industry,” he said.

But initial work on the agricultural component was promising. The $6.9 million grant funded research into best practices for irrigation of commercial grown guayule and helped growers develop guayule that produced more of the compounds needed for making rubber.

Cooper previously said that the average passenger car tire is about 40 percent rubber by weight. About 65 percent of that is synthetic rubber from oil, and the rest natural rubber from hevea trees grown in Asia.

If guayule could be used in significant quantities in new tires, it would cut companies’ reliance on imported rubber, give birth to an agricultural product suitable for dry climates, and possibly be more environmentally friendly.

“The results of this grant have been groundbreaking,” Mr. Yurkovich said. “Never before has it been proven that guayule is a viable source of domestically produced natural rubber for the tire industry. However, through the combined effort of industry, government and academia, the ... team has unequivocally demonstrated just that.”

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at tlinkhorn@theblade.com419-724-6134 or on Twitter @BladeAutoWriter.

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