EU-PEARLS, which finished in 2012, was a successful FP7-project (coordinated by DLO) aiming at the development of two alternative natural rubber sources for Europe. This research-project investigated the possibilities to produce rubber from guayule and the Russian dandelion (Taraxacum koksaghyz, TKS). It was shown that both crops are able to produce high-quality rubber, but they differ considerably in breeding, cultivation, harvesting and rubber extraction methods.
- TKS showed the best potential for industrial application, because of the following advantages: The rubber from the roots of TKS was demonstrated to produce a rubber which matches the quality of the Hevea rubber, which provides opportunities for high performance products in building and transport sectors.
- TKS can be grown in temperate climate regions, in particular East-European regions with a very large though still under-exploited agricultural potential. TKS is an annual crop, which will allow yearly harvest of the full biomass, thus permitting to generate additional economic value by valorising other biomass components. Moreover an annual crop can be plugged in existing crop rotation systems.
- TKS is much easier to breed: because of the short reproductive cycle (2-3 new generations per year), low diploid number of chromosomes and the possibility for sexual reproduction.
- TKS can be easily harvested: existing chicory root harvesting machines can be used.
- The TKS root biomass comprises, next to 10-15% natural rubber, up to 40% inulin. Inulin is a polymer of fructose, an excellent resource for furan type chemicals and polymers. Inulin can be extracted using hot water (allowing a biorefinery process that can be operated without the use of organic solvents).
- One of the aims of EU-PEARLS was to increase the productivity and the quality of TKS rubber. This aim has been achieved and EU-PEARLS resulted in good quality (dry) rubber, proof of concept of the rubber extraction process and conversion of natural rubber in a series of rubber based products. Another result of EU-PEARLS was the development of breeding tools and the formation of hybrids between TKS and more vigorously growing dandelion species. For TKS, proof of principle was obtained on an efficient extraction process for rubber on lab scale and on small pilot scale. Crude rubber samples from TKS were used to produce the first sets of (two) car tyres which are currently subjected to an extensive testing program. The first result showed that some aspects, e.g. wet grip of the tyres were equal or even superior to conventionally produced tyres.