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Flower Power Helps Horsepower With Dandelion-Based Tires

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Dandelions could be used for tire rubber [Image: Flickr user jolly_janner]

Dandelions could be used for tire rubber [Image: Flickr user jolly_janner]

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Dandelions are something of a garden pest, their yellow petals springing up everywhere you don't want them. As you might have noticed when snipping off their heads or digging out their roots though, the common garden weed secretes a milky white fluid—one which Dutch biologist Ingrid van der Meer is turning into tire-grade rubber.

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"People just think of it as a horrible weed," van der Meer tells Business Insider, yet one type of dandelion native to Kazakhstan has qualities that make it attractive as an alternative source of rubber. The biologist's team is one of several worldwide attempting to breed the perfect flower to supply the huge tire industry. One German team is breeding plants specially designed for the task, with stalks up to a foot in height and upright leaves to help with harvesting.

One of the dandelion's weed-like qualities is attractive too—its ability to grow in poor soil. Hundreds of acres could be dedicated to the plants where, as one small-scale U.S. trial has found, the flowers are capable of delivering per-hectare rubber yields on-par with rubber tree plantations in tropical Asia—around 1,500 kilograms of rubber per hectare. Breaking away from these Asian countries is a priority for the tire industry. It consumes around two thirds of rubber farmed worldwide, and much of that comes from Southeast Asia. Dandelion farms could provide the industry with a little more control over its sources.

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That's particularly important with the emergence of a fungus in the subcontinent that could destroy vital supplies. Prices are fluctuating wildly at the moment and market volatility could seriously affect the industry's ability to produce its products at economical prices. As such, huge brands like Bridgestone and Continental are backing the rubber research. Dandelions are unlikely to take over from rubber trees completely—it's estimated an area the size of Austria would be required to supply the world's rubber needs—but it could help stabilize the market. And that means many more years of tires for your shiny new car. Just consider that next time you're cursing those little yellow flowers in your garden...

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