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One of the world’s largest tire manufacturers is betting big on a desert shrub native to Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States to produce a new, more sustainable source of natural rubber.
Bridgestone on Monday announced plans to invest an additional $42 million to establish commercial operations for planting and harvesting a rubber-rich shrub called guayule at scale in the American Southwest. Since 2012, the company has invested more than $100 million in guayule farming and processing research as part of its plan to achieve carbon neutrality and make its tires from 100 percent renewable materials by 2050.
The guayule plant is a woody shrub that bears small white flowers and narrow silvery leaves that grows in hot, arid desert areas with plenty of sun and little water. While guayule has been used at times as a source for commercial rubber throughout the 20th century, including during World War II when the U.S. faced a sudden rubber shortage, the plant has not been widely utilized. Currently, more than 95 percent of the world’s natural rubber supply is extracted from the Para rubber tree, which is native to South America but is largely grown on rubber plantations in South Asia in a tropical climate.
Bridgestone argues that extracting rubber from guayule in the U.S. would eliminate environmental impacts associated with importing rubber from overseas. Perhaps more importantly, guayule can be cultivated using very little water. The plant requires as little as half the water it takes to grow commercial crops currently grown in the southwestern U.S., such as cotton and alfalfa. The company is aiming to bring guayule-based rubber to commercial production by 2030.
“We’re extremely 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 just to name a few. We’re thrilled to be taking this major step toward commercialization before the end of the decade,” Nizar Trigui, chief technology officer of Bridgestone Americas, said in a statement.
Bridgestone broke ground on a guayule processing and research center in Mesa, Arizona in 2012 and currently operates a 281-acre farm in Eloy, Arizona. The company says it is expanding the number of local farmers it works with in Arizona and is hoping to plant 350 new acres of guayule in the coming year, with the ultimate goal of establishing 25,000 acres.
In May, Bridgestone debuted Firestone Firehawk race tires made with guayule natural rubber grown and extracted at the company’s Arizona facilities during the Indy 500 Pit Stop Challenge.
“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,” Trigui said.