It looks like a tire, rolls like a tire and even smells like one. The only discernible difference is that it has the words Taraxa Gum printed after the description “Continental Winter Contact” and is decorated with the image of a yellow dandelion.
This tire isn’t made from natural rubber, or caoutchouc as it is also known, but from the extract of Taraxacum kok-saghyz, the Russian dandelion plant.
“There’s a lot going on especially in the field of materials,” said Nikolai Setzer, the head of Continental’s tire division, speaking at the Frankfurt Motor Show where the tire was presented earlier this week.
Tires remain the core division of the Hanover-based auto parts maker set up in 1871, but they tend not to attract as much attention as other tech innovations in automotive. Yet, manufacturers are continually working on improving tires to lower fuel consumption and road noise, and much progress has been made in the last 10 years on reducing resistance and improving grip and safety.
“To meet global demand for natural rubber from dandelion, one would need an area the size of Austria.”
Now Continental, which competes with Japan’s Bridgestone, Michelin of France and U.S.-listed Goodyear, is turning its attention to raw materials. It has tested the new Taraxa Gum tire in wintery off-road conditions in Iceland. In all criteria, the Taraxa tires performed as well as natural rubber onces, the company said.
Finding a substitute for caoutchouc has not been easy. Synthetic rubber can be used, but it doesn’t work for tires that need to be particularly robust and durable. Truck tires still contain 10 to 15 kilograms of natural caoutchouc, depending on their size.
Natural rubber has two major drawbacks for manufacturers. Firstly, 80 percent of it has to be imported from Southeast Asia. Secondly, the price of rubber has been extremely volatile in recent years. Since 2010, its price has tumbled to $1.30 per kilogram from $5 due to an increase in supply caused by heavy investment in rubber plantations.
But Continental’s tire chief, Mr. Setzer, doesn’t believe the price will stay low and has been pushing for alternative raw materials. “On average it will move between two and three dollars in future,” he predicted.
The Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries reported a decline in production in 2014 and has attributed the absence of price increases to weakening growth in demand from China.
In a bid to lessen its dependence on market swings, Continental is going the route of the Russian dandelion, which unlike the German dandelion contains a unique extract that is very similar to natural rubber.
It has the added advantage that it can be cultivated anywhere in the world. And unlike the caoutchouc tree which can only be tapped after seven years, a field of dandelions can be harvested within months of being sown — as often as three times per year.
Continental has been working with farmers to test the cultivation of the plant. The company has insisted on strict secrecy to such an extent that most cooperating farms planted dandelion seeds in the center of fields and mask them with other crops.
Germany’s Fraunhofer Society, a scientific research organization, has also been testing the new miracle plant. A team led by professor Dirk Prüfer succeeded in a short period of time in doubling its rubber content without genetic engineering.
But Mr. Prüfer doesn’t expect the Russian dandelion to supplant natural caoutchouc, for one simple reason: “To meet global demand for natural rubber from dandelion, one would need an area the size of Austria.”