St. Louis Startup Seeks To Avoid ‘Rubber Apocalypse’ With Sunflowers
Manufacturers who depend on rubber for their product typically source the rubber from Asia, where most of the world’s natural rubber is harvested. But an 8-year-old St. Louis company wants to change that.
“The world’s supply of natural rubber is at risk,” said David Woodburn, the CEO of Edison Agrosciences. “Ninety percent of it or so comes from Southeast Asia … not only from the same plant species, but really, clones of [the] exact same trees. So once you have that type of concentration, pests — whether it be disease or insects — if they take hold, things can move fast.”
Case in point, Woodburn said, is what happened in the early 20th century, when almost 100% of the world’s supply of natural rubber came from South America.
“It all came from the Hevea rubber tree until the South American leaf blight set in, and now there’s essentially no commercial rubber produced in South America,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before that hits Southeast Asia, and that’s what we’re trying to work [on]. We’re trying to avoid the rubber apocalypse that is really likely to happen — we just don’t know exactly when.”
To avoid such a scenario, researchers at Edison Agrosciences are working to develop alternative rubber crops. And it’s found a product that it believes can become a source of homegrown rubber: sunflowers.
They believe that sunflower petals are capable of becoming the world’s next best source of natural rubber — one day meeting 75 to 80% of the world’s demand. When the company planted 121 varieties of sunflower and measured the rubber content from each type, they found that some produced 0.2% in the leaves, and others at 1.8%.
While that’s a small amount, Woodburn sees potential. “You look at that difference — that’s a nine times difference between the heaviest producers and the lightest producers. So that’s one approach we can take, is to understand what’s causing that difference, and then just exploit that natural variation in the crop.”
The expensive part of natural rubber production is in the extraction process. Woodburn said that once they have a sunflower variety that produces 3% natural rubber, it will be economically feasible to use the plant to create the product.
“Ideally, we’d get it up to 5 or 6%,” he said.
The company recently received support from Arch Grants and investors, and landed a $1 million research contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense. The funds will allow them to continue their research using gene editing technology to increase the sunflower’s natural rubber production.
In two years, Woodburn would like to see the company at a point where they have a sunflower variety that produces at least 3% or more of natural rubber “in the lab, in the greenhouse and a few very small field trials — to show that we have seen a large improvement and now we’re ready to scale that up.”
Currently, the rubber market is valued at $100 billion annually, with natural rubber making up $42 billion of that estimate. The United States does not produce natural rubber of its own, and relies heavily on importing it.
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