Dandelion rubber gets ready for the market: tyre manufacturer Continental opens "Taraxagum Lab Anklam"
Years ago, the idea sounded anything from weird to audacious: manufacturing car tyres from dandelions. But Prof. Dirk Prüfer and his team of around 15 researchers were convinced right from the beginning, in 2006, that there was a long-term chance of success for obtaining from the common dandelion (Taraxacum) large quantities of the natural rubber needed for many rubber products – instead of having to import it from distant tropical regions.
Dirk Prüfer is Professor of the Biotechnology of Plants at the University of Münster and heads the Department of Functional and Applied Genomics at the Fraunhofer Institute of Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology in Münster and Aachen. Now, since December 6, Prüfer can look at an area of around 30,000 square metres and see that with the years of basic research he has undertaken, he has taken a significant step towards serial production. After four years of planning and preparation, tyre manufacturer Continental has officially opened its “Taraxagum Lab Anklam” research and testing laboratory in Anklam, in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In the laboratory, 20 agricultural scientists, chemists and production technicians will be collaborating with Prüfer to advance the cultivation of plants locally and carry out experiments for processing Russian dandelion. The first car tyres made from dandelions could be on the market in five years’ time.
Continental says it has invested 35 million euros in the new laboratory – located in a building 20 meters high and 200 metres in length just outside Anklam, a town with a population of 10,000. The Economics Ministry of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern provided around 11.6 million euros of funding for the project. “We are delighted to be able to open this lighthouse project,” said Nikolai Setzer, a member of the Continental management board. “We see Russian dandelion as an important alternative and supplement to conventional natural rubber from the tropics for meeting the worldwide increase in demand – and doing so in a way which is both environmentally friendly and reliable.” Currently, five farmers in the region are growing Russian dandelion on an area of 30 hectares. In the longer term, the area is to be increased to 20,000 hectares.
For Dirk Prüfer, walking around inside the huge building in Anklam was anything but normal. “It’s a dream come true,“ he said. “I’m very impressed.” A lot of people from the media wanted to speak to him, and a lot of the people invited to the opening ceremony asked him about how he assessed future developments. “For many years now, we’ve been working on understanding the molecular basis of rubber synthesis in dandelions,” he said. “This understanding of the biology involved has now brought industrial application within our grasp. Continental has given a clear signal with this new laboratory, making the idea of transfer from research to practice very visible.” The Rector of the University of Münster, Prof. Johannes Wessels, was also present among around 150 guests at the opening ceremony, as was the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Minister of Economics, Harry Glawe. “The Taraxagum project is an outstanding example of the way that Münster University stands for top-level research,” said Wessels. “We are all proud of the work done by Dirk Prüfer and his team.”
The scientific details: The milky latex in Russian dandelion (Taraxacum koksaghyz) contains long chains of rubber molecules which are an important raw material for many rubber products. The fact that this dandelion rubber is now being utilized by Continental is due to the research work undertaken by Dirk Prüfer and his team. A biological understanding is the precondition for any industrial application. Although Russian dandelion contains more rubber than other species of dandelion, the quantity found in the wild plant is not sufficient for production on an industrial scale. Nor do wild plants provide stable yields. This is why wide-ranging programmes are being carried out at the ESKUSA plant-breeding company to breed a “common” high-yield dandelion.
The development of so-called DNA markers by the Münster researchers is important for this breeding programme. These markers are places in the genetic material which occur naturally. They are verifiable in the laboratory and occur in combination with that section of the genetic material which produces a certain desired property in the plant. One example is a higher rubber content. Thanks to the markers, the researchers can subsequently examine the plant seedlings to see whether they have these desired properties, and they can assess whether it is worth continuing to breed these plants.