Prof to Use Dandelions to Help Rubber Industry

March 18, 2011 - News Release

It might be a stretch, but a University of Guelph plant breeder hopes to coax natural rubber from Russian dandelion to feed a growing global rubber market and to offer a potentially lucrative new crop for farmers in southern Ontario.

Plant agriculture professor Dave Wolyn has received a grant from the Sand Plains Community Development Fund (SPCDF) in Tillsonburg, Ont., to study the growth and breeding of Russian dandelion plants to develop a Canadian rubber industry, it was announced Thursday.

“There’s a potential opportunity for this plant to produce rubber and for us to create a rubber industry and an alternative crop for this region,” said John Klunder, SPCDF program co-ordinator.

Wolyn received a $143,500 grant from SPCDF. The project has also received support from KoK Technologies Inc. in Penticton, B.C., whose owner, Anvar Buranov, has developed a patented process for recovering natural rubber.

Wolyn and other Guelph researchers will use this year’s plant trial results to see whether Russian dandelion can become a new field crop for a natural rubber industry and for related products such as latex, food additives and biofuels.

This spring, he will start dandelion seeds from Kazakhstan and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He will grow the seedlings at U of G’s Simcoe Research Station and will harvest rubber this fall to help select promising plants.

The researchers plan to apply for further funding for a long-term breeding program.

World demand for natural rubber will probably increase as economies grow, especially in China and India, said Wolyn.

Most rubber is used for making tires. Natural rubber is better for airplane and heavy-equipment tires than the synthetic oil-derived rubber used in car tires.

The only commercial source of natural rubber, the Brazilian rubber tree, grows mostly in Southeast Asia. Political instability and possible disease outbreaks there threaten the world rubber supply. (After rubber trees were transplanted to Asia, a fungus wiped out most of the South American trees.)

Rubber forms naturally in dandelion roots and in parts of other plants. Russian dandelion rubber is chemically suited for use in tires and as latex for gloves, making it an ideal replacement for rubber tree products, says Wolyn. Unlike other rubber-bearing plants, this dandelion species also contains inulin, a food additive and feedstock for biofuels that might also benefit growers.

The Guelph professor joined the project after Buranov contacted U of G to find a plant breeder. Wolyn has bred asparagus since 1988 and developed an award-winning hybrid that now has almost three-quarters of the Ontario asparagus market. Said Wolyn: “Buranov views Guelph as one of the centres of agricultural research and plant breeding.”

Referring to the rubber project, Wolyn said: “I thought it was exciting. You’re taking a wild plant and trying to turn it into a crop. You’re starting from ground zero ― there’s not a hundred years of breeding that has come before me.”

A rubber shortage during the Second World War prompted scientists to study rubber from Canadian-grown plants, including Russian dandelion. They found that the plant grew well in southern Ontario, but they dropped the project after the conflict ended.

Wolyn said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will release a review this spring of Russian dandelion under invasive species regulations. He said American studies in the 1940s found the plant unlikely to overrun native plants.

Prof. David Wolyn
Department of Plant Agriculture
519-824-4120, Ext. 53092 or 56469

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University of Guelph
50 Stone Road East
Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1