Natural Rubber Today
“It moves us, insulates us, protects us and cushions us, ingrained so deeply into our lives it can be found in nearly every machine, appliance, apparatus and gadget and its story is one of the most fantastic you’ll ever hear.”
This statement opened the 2004, History Channel Modern Marvels broadcast on Natural Rubber. They also point out that “Our four most important natural resources are air, water, petroleum, and rubber”. PENRA would have argued for soil to be part of the list. Nonetheless, while most people guess the first two, some also come up with petroleum, almost no-one even imagines that rubber is fourth on this list.
Natural rubber is a critical agriculture material essential to the US economy, used to make about 50,000 different products across all manufacturing sectors. The higher the product performance required, the greater the proportion of natural rubber: the rubber component of a passenger car tire may be 50% natural and 50% synthetic, but truck tires are 95-100% natural rubber. Airplanes land on 100% natural rubber tires – they would explode on landing if synthetic polymers were included. Surgeon’s gloves are also 100% natural rubber.
Almost all natural rubber is harvested by tapping tropical rubber trees and the United States imports about 1.5 million metric tons (3,306,000,000 lbs), an enormous amount. However, we now face a significant supply problem. As southeast Asia, India, China and Brazil expand and develop their economies, they need more and more rubber. The increasing demand is greater than all of our imports so where shall we get the rubber we need?
PENRA was created to integrate and accelerate the incubation, demonstration, market entry, and growth of a domestic natural rubber industry. Natural rubber is an agricultural material critical to all sectors of our economy and defense, but we import all that we need - produced from clonal rubber trees grown mostly in Southeast Asia. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the fragility of this extended natural rubber supply chain. PENRA focuses on the creation of the science and technology and the private partnerships needed to support the introduction and scale-up of natural rubber alternatives. Current research focuses on improvement of germplasm, production methods and processing techniques to increase the yield of natural rubber from the rubber dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz), utilization of allergen-free latex from guayule (Parthenium argentatum), and evaluation of the natural rubber potential of other plants. The development of premium specialty products, such as gloves and sporting goods, are key to initial small scale commercial viability.
PENRA: Working Toward Solutions
As a marketplace need made itself apparent, a pioneering program was established; capitalizing on cutting-edge research with other scientists and industry leaders across the country. The "Program of Excellence in Natural Rubber Alternatives" (PENRA) builds on previous scientific collaborations and those currently being undertaken by alliance members and collaborators.