The 6,000-square-foot pilot plant in Wooster makes gloves and a variety of other latex and rubber products. This is nothing new in a town and region historically known for rubber manufacturing. What's different about the facility is the source of its natural rubber: plants grown in the United States rather than the Southeast Asian trees that currently provide all of the world's supply of natural rubber.

Established earlier this year, this unique pilot plant is operated by Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC). It's a crucial step in the university's effort to develop and commercialize domestic natural rubber sources that could one day replace a portion of the imports of this strategic yet largely overlooked raw material.

While led by OARDC, the project -- funded by a $3 million Third Frontier grant from the state of Ohio -- also involves the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of Akron and Oregon State University. Industry partners include Bridgestone, Cooper Tire, Veyance Technologies and Ford Motor Co.

"Natural rubber is probably the most underappreciated critical resource that we have," said Katrina Cornish, project leader and OARDC endowed chair in bioemergent materials. "There are over 40,000 things made with natural rubber, including 400 medical devices. Life as we know it wouldn't be possible without natural rubber."

Driving to the grocery store wouldn't be possible. Neither would be flying around the world. Even with the most sophisticated advances in synthetic rubber technology, passenger vehicle tires need about 50 percent natural rubber content to adequately resist the road's demands, said Hiroshi Mouri, president of Bridgestone Americas Center for Research & Technology in Akron.

And in the case of aircraft tires, they are made entirely from natural rubber.

"It’s very important to have an alternate source of natural rubber," said Mouri, who works closely with OARDC in the project. "We want to diversify the sources of natural rubber to make sure our production is sustainable. The rubber tree has a history of extinction in the past in Brazil, and if that happens in Southeast Asia, we won't have a source of natural rubber. So it's important to have other alternatives."
Those alternatives include Taraxacum kok-saghyz, or TKS -- a type of dandelion native to the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. This plant can produce large amounts of rubber in its roots and can grow in Ohio and other temperate areas of North America. OARDC researchers have been working for the past six years on turning this weed into a crop that can grow on a consistent, predictable basis and can yield as much rubber as possible.