Ford Looks to Dandelions for Natural Rubber

DEARBORN, MI — Ford continues to diversify its research into plant-based materials by turning a common weed into a replacement for synthetic rubber.

The company has already introduced soy foam and wheat straw components into its vehicles. Now, it's looking to produce cup holders, floor mats and other parts with the help of dandelions.

Through work with Ohio State University, Ford will make and test car components created with rubber derived from the Russian dandelion, Taraxacum kok-saghyz. OSU's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center is growing the dandelion, which produces a milky-white substance from its roots that can be turned into rubber.

Debbie Milewski, technical leader of Ford's plastics research group, said the dandelion rubber will be used in parts that are part-plastic, part-rubber. That includes materials all over the interiors of cars like plastic trim as well as exterior parts like bumper covers. Some of those components have rubber content up to 40-50 percent.

Before dandelion-based cup holders find their way into cars, Ford will test how the rubber performs with different plastics to make sure it meets durability requirements.

"We're going to look at a wide range of plastics and then we'll narrow the scope from there," Milewski said. The timeframe for getting the new rubber into vehicles depends on what issues crop up during testing. Soy foam, which is now in seats for every vehicle sold in North America, took six years of development, while the wheat straw bins went from concept to implementation in 18 months.

The dandelion-based rubber has the potential to find its way into any part that currently includes rubber, and Milewski said Ford might even try making parts completely from the natural rubber. The change would not only shift Ford away from petroleum-based synthetic rubber, but also use a plant source that can grow easily in the United States.

OSU's research on making rubber from the Russian dandelion was a continuation of work done by a Russian university, Milewski said. Ford got involved after a local Ford car dealer near OSU, who knew about the company's other bio-materials work, heard about the project and wrote to Executive Chairman Bill Ford about it, she said. 

As part of Ford's overall plan to make vehicles lighter and explore alternative materials, the company has also created fabrics out of recycled plastic bottles and engine cylinder head covers from recycled carpet.

Dandelions at OSU - Courtesy Ford