Tire manufacturer Bridgestone Americas has announced it has invested $42 million to commercialize the development of desert shrub guayule found in America's southwest into a domestic source of natural rubber for its tires.
The company said it has made the investment to establish commercial operations to farm the shrub and has further plans for additional investment and expansion through to 2030.
It said it will collaborate and partner with local U.S. farmers and Native American tribes to increase the capacity of up to 25,000 additional acres of farmland for planting and harvesting guayule at scale, with a view to targeting the sustainable commercial production of guayule-derived natural rubber by the end of the decade.
Nizar Trigui, Bridgestone's chief technology officer, said the company was "bullish" on the potential for guayule as a domestic source of "strategically critical" materials such as rubber, hypoallergenic latex, building material adhesives and renewable fuel, among other potential applications.
"With guayule, we can reduce the environmental impacts that come with overseas sourcing while also realizing a more sustainable agricultural system for parts of this country that are facing persistent and worsening climate conditions, so it's really something with many benefits for our environment and our economy," he added.
Bridgestone described guayule as a heat-tolerant, woody shrub that thrives in the deserts of America's southwest. The company said the shrub can be farmed using existing row-crop equipment, which will save costs for farmers, and additionally requires as little as half the water to grow as existing crops, such as cotton and alfalfa.
The company first launched its research initiative into the properties of the plant in 2012, when it founded a processing and research centre in Mesa, Arizona. Today it operates the Mesa research center alongside a 281-acre guayule farm in Elroy, Arizona.
It said that to date it has invested more than $100 million in its efforts to commercialize guayule and has achieved a number of "major milestones," including the production of the first tire made using guayule-derived natural rubber in 2015 and the continued expansion of its guayule molecular breeding program.
The company added that it has also been the recipient of multiple U.S. government research grants for its guayule research and development programs, including from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute.
Most notably it used the material to make guayule-derived natural rubber tires for the Firestone Firehawk, which competed in the Indy 500 Put Stop Challenge in May, as well as using the tires as an alternate race tire earlier this month at the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.
Bridgestone said the first use of the guayule natural-derived rubber in America's premier open-wheel racing series served to demonstrate both the safety and the performance of the material in a high-speed environment, where cars raced at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour.
In addition, Bridgestone said it is expanding the number of local farmers it works with in Central Arizona and is aiming to see 350 new acres of guayule planted this coming year. It said the conversion to less water-intensive crops is a direct result of Bridgestone's agreement with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an NGO actively involved in water shortage solutions for the Colorado River, used for irrigation in Central Arizona.
Guayule is part of the Bridgestone plan to achieve carbon neutrality and make tires from 100 percent renewable materials by 2050. The company added that it is actively researching a range of solutions to support the recycling of materials from end-of-life tires and promote the replacement of non-renewable materials such as oil, silica and virgin carbon black in new tires.