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Is this Plant the Alternative to the Rubber Tree?

Natural rubber is derived from the Hevea brasiliensis tree. However, as plant supplies dwindle and fail to sustain demand for rubber, scientists and manufacturing companies are turning their attention to alternative rubber source, the guayule plant.

Guayule Plant

Credit: Wikipedia

 

The rubber tree

The Hevea, or rubber tree has been a vital source of natural rubber for many years. By tapping the tree to gather a latex sap, natural rubber can be made into many products, particularly vehicle tyres.

Although scientists have since developed synthetic rubber in laboratories for making many items today, there are still instances where natural rubber is a vital component in some high-performance products, such as aircraft tyres.

Yet, the world's supply of natural rubber is fast becoming scarce. The Hevea tree is being adversely affected by climate change, and disease, such as leaf blight, is killing off swathes of plants.

Asian countries that grow rubber trees are also under increasing pressure to preserve rainforests, and not clear any more land for commercial use.

 

The guayule plant

With Hevea facing an uncertain future, an alternative plant called guayule is increasingly been considered as a viable source of natural rubber.

Guayule was first researched as a possible natural rubber alternative during World War II, when Asian rubber supplies were cut off from the west. However, after the war, when trade recommenced, research into guayule was shelved.

In more recent times, the guayule plant has been thrust back into the spotlight. Like Hevea, guayule has also been found to produce a natural substance that can be made into rubber, but it comes with added benefits.

Native to Mexico and the south west of the USA, this desert plant thrives in hot, dry conditions. This means it doesn't require much watering. Crops can be harvested after just two years, and a single acre produces around one tonne of rubber.

Crucially, guayule can be easily harvested by machinery or solvents, rather than by time-consuming hand, like Hevea. This is because the rubber in guayule is stored in the cells of the plant rather than near the bark, which means machines can crush the whole shrub to extract the rubber. Even better, the remains of the guayule plant can be used to make fuel or a soil additive, thereby producing zero waste.

Guayule also possesses wider genetic diversity than Hevea, making crops less vulnerable to disease. Researchers have also found that rubber from guayule doesn't have potential allergenic components, unlike latex from Hevea. One company in the USA has been exploiting this to make non-allergenic latex gloves.

This isn't the only company in the USA that is attempting to capitalise on the benefits of this flowering shrub. Another company is growing the crop having received investment support from tyre manufacturers and the government, to create products such as tyres and wetsuits.

Although interest in guayule as an alternative to natural rubber is increasing, research and production are still in their infancy. It is likely to take several years before it enjoys widespread commercial success, or even supersedes the Hevea tree.

Whatever the future holds for rubber, it is still one of the most important materials in use today. Certainly, if you're seeking high-quality, durable rubber products at affordable prices, you've come to the right place at Coruba.



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