A tree called Hevea brasiliensis drives the world – quite literally. Hevea brasiliensis is the world’s number one source for natural rubber, and though the primary use is in vehicle tires, it has hundreds of consumer and industrial applications. These include uses in building and bridge construction, medicine, personal care and transportation, and in many cases, it cannot be replaced by synthetic, or petroleum-based, rubber.
Most natural rubber, also called India rubber or caoutchouc, comes from latex, the milky tree sap of Hevea brasilensis. The trees are tapped by making an incision in the bark of the tree and collecting the sap in a bucket – a very low-tech process and much like the way maple trees are tapped to make maple syrup. The latex is then refined into natural rubber.
Rubber – and the trees that produce it – has its origins in South America, but today most of the world’s rubber comes from Southeast Asia. But supplies are shortening, which is driving up prices for finished products from all industries that use rubber as a raw material. And it is only going to get worse; the global shortage of natural rubber is expected to deepen this year, the Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries has predicted.
According to a recent article in Bloomberg, the world deficit of natural rubber may skyrocket to 186,000 tons this year, up from a previous estimate of 51,000 tons, due to industrial growth activity in China and India. This comes after a surplus of 153,000 tons in 2011. The world’s output of natural rubber was expected to increase by 2.6 percent to 11.54 million tons this year, which is far lower than the anticipated 6 percent growth in demand to 11.73 million tons, according to the Bloomberg report.
By 2020, the demand-supply gap for rubber is predicted to widen so much that the world may be short about 1 million tons of needs, according to Rubber Asia magazine. In other words, natural rubber will become increasingly difficult and expensive to source. This will be bad news for a plethora of industries, not to mention consumers because of higher prices for finished goods.
Why Is There a Shortage?
There are numerous reasons for the shortage. To start, Hevea brasiliensis trees must be at least five or six years old before they can be tapped, which means that there is a long delay from new planting until latex production. The supply pace hasn’t been able to keep pace with voracious demand for vehicle tires in China and India.
In recent years, drought, followed by excessive rain and flooding, in Thailand and Indonesia, hurt trees and curbed production in two of the world’s top rubber producers. Disease is another factor. Rubber trees are sensitive to South American leaf blight, a fungal disease that continues to threaten production. (In fact, efforts to grow rubber trees in South America’s Amazon region have largely failed because of leaf blight.)
There are also effects of climate change, according to many in the rubber industry. Rubber Asia notes that most of the world’s natural rubber producing regions are particularly vulnerable to climate change.
Tire manufacturing is the number-one use of natural rubber. In developed nations, about 60 percent of all rubber consumed is for vehicle tires and tubes.
It is important to keep in mind that rubber isn’t in demand only for consumer vehicle tires. Rubber shortages have downstream impact on trucking companies, aircraft manufacturers, construction companies and mining operations, all of which rely on heavy-use vehicles with tires that need to be replaced often. The aviation industry particularly depends on natural rubber, since safety certification of aircraft becomes more complicated and expensive when synthetic rubbers are used.
Natural rubber has extensive other industrial uses: machine belts and bases, flooring and dampeners, vibration-absorbing bearings for bridges as well as buildings in seismic regions, tubing, electrical insulation, adhesives, paints, oils, solvents and other chemicals as well as protective clothing.
So with flat supply, skyrocketing demand and limitations with petroleum-based synthetic rubber, global industry must figure out natural-rubber alternatives or pay the price — literally.
While Hevea brasiliensis is usually referred to as the rubber tree, it is not the only source of natural rubber in the world. Researchers have examined other species of trees and plants with which to make rubber, particularly for industries such as medical (many people are allergic to Hevea brasiliensis latex). The two most promising alternative sources of natural rubber are the North American shrub Parthenium argentatum (called guayule) and Taraxacum koksaghyz (Russian dandelion).
In addition, botanists are seeking to genetically engineer more climate-tolerant and high-yielding versions of Hevea brasiliensis in order to allow expansion of rubber cultivation into more non-traditional regions, according to Rubber Asia.
EU-PEARLS was a four-year joint project between several European research organizations and industrial partners with the objective of finding an alternative to Hevea brasiliensis rubber. Closing out the project at the end of September, the project’s researchers spent much of their efforts on developing rubber from Russian dandelion and guayule (which is already being used to produce biomass on a large scale in Spain) for industries that cannot substitute synthetic rubber for natural rubber.
EU-PEARLS’s primary research goals were finding suitable conditions for the growth of Russian dandelion and guayule in Europe, optimizing the yield and quality of the natural rubber and designing an ideal extraction method. The group determined that the rubber from Russian dandelion is easier to extract and that future research will focus on optimizing the growth of this plant. (Interestingly, the concept of making rubber from Russian dandelion is not new; it was pursued by both Russian and U.S. militaries during World War II, when the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia made it difficult to obtain Hevea brasiliensis rubber.)
Rubber Asia notes that it will not be surprising if current research and development trends lead to innovative technologies that can help reduce the use of traditional natural rubber and boost the production of other natural rubbers as well as to better ways to make synthetic rubber, perhaps from bio-based feedstocks. Global industrial growth may quite literally depend on it.