TECHNOLOGY AREA(S): Materials
OBJECTIVE: Produce rubber from plants and implement alternative agronomic practices conducive to environmental conditions for increased rubber biosynthesis, extraction, processing, and manufacturing.
DESCRIPTION: There is a compelling DoD need to develop a uniform and reliable alternative natural rubber product for industrial and military use that will achieve the following: improve the amount, quality, and value of natural rubber production outcomes; increase the cultivability or environmental tolerance to rubber yield; identify and address issues associated with natural rubber extraction and/or natural rubber processing, at any step; and define and determine factors that cause rubber biosynthesis homogeneity between plants for dependable natural rubber production, and further alternative natural rubber crop performance goals. Rubber is a valuable natural resource, an $18 billion industry, and natural rubber is in particularly high demand. Natural rubber’s global consumption is approximately 11 million metric tons per year with the United States importing over 1 million metric tons per year. Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Vietnam and China are the world’s top six natural rubber producers consisting of ~86% of global natural rubber production. In line with this, the world’s leading natural rubber manufacturers are mainly located in Southeast Asia. Currently, the vast majority of natural rubber is derived from the para rubber tree, Havea brasiliensis. To harvest isoprene polymers (the natural product), incisions are made into the bark allowing the crude product to drip into individual containers for collection and sale. The collected material is then sold to facilities for further processing. While the product refinement process has evolved over the years, growth and harvest methods have remained largely unchanged. Low genetic diversity, highly localized farms, and tapping for latex contribute to disease susceptibility, outbreak, and spread. In contrast, synthetic rubber is sourced from petroleum. Crude oil is refined and combined with natural gas to form monomers. The monomers are sold by refineries to synthetic rubber facilities where chemical agents are used to form chains of petroleum monomers, known as synthetic polymerization. Unfortunately, synthetic rubber is incompatible with many uses because it is less compression and impact resistant than natural rubber. Additionally, natural rubber has increased tear and tensile strength, as well as, superior mechanical performance properties. For example, aircraft tires are made of natural rubber; whereas, synthetic rubber (which is less expensive to procure) is used for less demanding products. Some military grade rubber products, machinery, and equipment are in line with natural rubber’s properties having unique specifications for operation and remaining functional in unique conditions (e.g., high impact of an aircraft landing, shock of an inordinately heavy/large automobile driving in rough terrain).
PHASE I: Proposers are encouraged to use emerging bioengineering tools to achieve the stated objective, and ensure proposed teams have relevant experiences or insights moving technology from lab to market. Determine feasibility of the stated objective. Example approaches could include one or more of the following: • Develop novel approaches to improve rubber biosynthesis in alternative plants. • Increase levels and/or increase quality of natural rubber. • Improve natural rubber extraction and processing. • Mitigate environmental factors which limit growth and yield. Expected outcomes could be: the design and development of an innovative natural rubber production concept, along with the limited testing of materials to determine technical feasibility, and performing key component technological milestones. Develop success criteria that aligns with market standards (e.g., high tensile strength, high elongation value, abrasion resistant). Conduct a small scale demonstration of the proposed approach to determine if expected outcome is achieved. Characterize the relevant physical and biochemical properties of the natural rubber alternative product; match or exceed the necessary parameters through optimization. The deliverable is a Phase I final report that includes a commercialization strategy that identifies the commercial and military entities currently involved in, or needed, for transitioning the technology from lab to market.
PHASE II: Construct an operating prototype predominantly consisting of alternative natural rubber material. Use Phase I test results to further develop prototype for fabrication and prototype performance analysis in Phase II. Prior to field testing the prototype, commercial and/or defense partners must be engaged to establish metrics of success relative to the state-of-the-art (i.e., recognized performance abilities of natural rubber). Required Phase II deliverables will include: an operational prototype that incorporates field test results, quarterly reports containing an updated market analysis, product hypothesis, basic cost model, and go-to-market strategy.
PHASE III: Phase III: (Commercial): A commercial application of a developed alternative natural rubber resource is the substitution of its use in the natural rubber supply chain. Some examples include replacing an industrial plantation, smallholder farmer, or implementing improved latex collection/drying/shredding of the alternative rubber product to increase its commercial potential. Performers are expected to leverage relationships established during Phase II to acquire funding from the private sector in Phase III. The goal of Phase III is successful commercialization of alternative natural rubber by testing product performance in the entire pipeline; extraction to manufacturing at scale. Co-products of alternative natural rubber extraction (e.g., lower molecular weight rubber) can be placed into the business model. Establish roles of commercial partners to secure path forward of bringing product to market. Present product performance data to manufacturers, end users, and decision makers within the supply and distribution chain. Required Phase III deliverables will include quarterly reports, progressively comprehensive, describing a detailed and partner-validated technology transition plan, and obtaining commitments from necessary parties for continuation of support after the STTR program. Phase III (Military): A military application of a developed alternative natural rubber resource is the incorporation if its use in the processing and logistics of military products derived from natural rubber. Some examples include natural rubber distributors selling to processing plants for military grade natural rubber products (e.g., aircraft tire fabrication) or natural rubber processing plants incorporating the alternative natural rubber resource into other military rubber products. Performers are expected to develop a business model for alternative natural rubber and rubber co-products for use in military grade rubber products that meet and exceed the specifications set forth by the US military. The goal of Phase III is to explore, test, and establish the utility of alternative natural rubber in the supply chain of any military ground transportation vehicle components, aerospace goods, marine vessel applications (e.g., ships, submarines), armaments and munitions components, and other high-performance military applications. Perform stress-strain pressure tests of prototypes and applicable performance metrics defined by the end user to validate its entry into the military positioned supply chain. Required Phase III deliverables will include quarterly reports describing the increased efficiency and durability of prototypes containing alternative natural rubber.
1: Van Beilen, J. B., Poirier, Y. 2007. Establishment of new crops for the production of natural rubber. Trends in Biotechnology 25:522-529
2: Davis, W. 1997. The rubber industry’s biological nightmare. Fortune 4 August, pp. 86–95
3: Mooibroek, H., Cornish, K. 2000. Alternative sources of natural rubber. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol 53:355-365
4: Cornish, K., 2017. Alternative natural rubber crops: why should we care? Technology and Innovation 18:245-256
KEYWORDS: Natural Rubber, Plant, Biosynthesis, Natural Rubber Plants, Natural Rubber Crops
Dr. Blake Bextine