Taking on the world: making rubber in Montana
August 28, 2008
by Dave Reese
Rubber might one day hit the road in Montana.
A Montana State University researcher is looking at ways to grow crops in Montana that could be used for rubber production.
Duane Johnson, superintendent at the Northwest Ag Research Center in Creston, Montana, is researching how to grow Russian dandelion — a plant once used for rubber production in World War II.
In collaboration with Ohio State University and Oregon State University, the MSU research center near Kalispell is looking at ways to diversify Montana’s energy market by being able to supply raw rubber to tire manufacturers.
Russian dandelion is one of three crops that can be grown to produce rubber; the others are the Brazilian rubber tree, and the guayule plant, which is grown in the southwest United States. Of these crops, only the Russian dandelion can be grown in Montana, but it’s highly adaptive to the state’s climate, Johnson says.
After the Russian dandelion crops are grown, the roots are harvested and dried. When the plants are processed in water, the rubber is extracted. A byproduct is sugar, that could then be fermented to make ethanol for about 50 cents a gallon. The resulting ethanol could then be used as an additive to gasoline.
The world rubber market is about to fall in on itself. Ninety-eight percent of the world market is produced in southeast Asia, but they’re reducing production by about four percent a year, Johnson says. With world demand for rubber products increasing 14 percent a year, by the year 2010, the rubber demand will outpace the supply.
According to Johnson, it costs about $1.10 a pound to produce rubber from the Brazilian rubber tree; it costs $5.38 a pound to make rubber from the guayule plant. But making rubber from Russian dandelions in Montana could be as low as 40 cents a pound.
As the worldwide energy market becomes more complex, Montana is poised to capitalize on its natural resources such as coal and oil, and its renewable resources like oilseed, wind, and now rubber, crops.
“We’re in the energy business … the renewable energy business,” Johnson says. “And it’s looking very good. We have a lot of good things going for us.”
The Northwestern Ag Research Center was built in 1949, and one of seven MSU research facilities around the state.
The 240-acre facility in Creston is a research center for crops from essential oils like mint for toothpaste, to improved forms of wheat varieties.
On the Net: http://ag.montana.edu