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The lowly dandelion, scourge of homeowners everywhere, is getting some love in a most unusual place: the auto industry, which could use the weed to make cup-holders and other interior bits.
Researchers at Ford and Ohio State University say a milky-white substance in the roots of an especially hardy strain of dandelion can be used to make synthetic rubber. It’s the latest example of nature showing us how to build cars more sustainably. Brazilian researchers, for example, are looking at bananas and pineapples as a source of more-ecofriendly plastic, while Toyota hopes to one day build a car out of seaweed.
“Synthetic rubber is not a sustainable resource, so we want to minimize its use in our vehicles when possible,” Ford research engineer Angela Harris said. “Dandelions have the potential to serve as a great natural alternative to synthetic rubber in our products.”
The dandelion in question is a Russian variety, Taraxacum kok-saghyz, being grown at the university’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. A milky-white substance that seeps from the roots is used to produce the rubber.
In a nutshell, the plants are carefully harvested to ensure the roots remain intact. The roots are ground to extract the milky-white latex. The latex is vulcanized, a process Ellen Lee, a researcher in Ford’s plastics research group, said involves cross-linking the polymer chains.
“Basically, if you think of the rubber molecules as long strings, vulcanizing would tie them all together to add durability, creating that rubber substance from the milky white liquid,” she said.
Ford sees the substance as a potential plastics modifier that could improve the impact strength of plastics. Should the material prove durable enough for mass production, it could be used in things like cup-holders, floor mats and interior trim.