Patent of the Month December

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Sustainable dandelion rubber tyres

At the end of the year, we turn our attention to a promising process for extracting rubber from dandelion roots to protect the remaining rainforest. This is an important step toward achieving climate targets and preserving vital biodiversity. A related project was nominated for the German Future Prize this year. Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology, IME, are working together with Continental AG to extract the raw rubber material from the inconspicuous plant. In 2019, results on this have been filed for a worldwide patent under the title "Method for separating polyisoprene and other apolar valuable substances from vegetable feedstock". The related publication WO2021116113A1 describes important processing parameters and is our Patent of the Month of December!

As a true cross-sectional topic, the innovation can be assigned to biochemistry as well as process technology and agriculture. The nominated research team is just as diverse, too. Spokesperson is chemist Dr. Carla Recker, heading the expert field of materials chemistry at Continental AG for over 15 years. It was her idea to use dandelions or Taraxacum, as it is scientifically called, for rubber production. Project partners and patent holders are Prof. Dirk Prüfer from the Institute of Plant Biology and Biotechnology at the Westphalian Wilhelms University Münster, who is also head of the "Plant Biopolymers" branch of the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME, and Dr. Christian Schulze Gronover, who heads a working group in the field of bioeconomy and renewable resources, also at the Fraunhofer IME.

Since 2010, the molecular biologist Prüfer and his team have been cultivating Russian dandelion in a greenhouse at the University of Münster where they have been optimising the plants under ideal cultivation conditions to produce stable, high-yielding lines. The 30-centimetre-long white roots, with a weight of about 200 grams, are the interesting plant components, as the natural rubber is extracted from them. While native dandelion roots contain only about one percent natural rubber, the Russian variety comes to about three to five percent. The optimised cultivars even have an economically lucrative content of 15 to 20 percent.

In the method described in the patent document, the natural rubber in the dandelion root biomass is extracted by mechanical comminution (grinding). In the course of this, the rubber particles agglomerate in the liquid solution. Core issue of the patent specification is the optimisation of the grinding process. By adding adsorber material (e.g. oils, activated carbon), the yield is decisively improved. The inventors also propose convenient/suitable process parameters for the addition of adsorbers for various grinding units. The remaining biomass serves as feed additive, biogas substrate or fertiliser, so that all plant components are sustainably utilised.

In 2014, the first dandelion car tyre prototypes were produced in Aachen, followed in 2016 by truck tyres with treads of the new rubber. Extensive driving and test bench checks certified the innovative material's excellent usability, so that tropical natural rubber can be replaced one-to-one. Since the plants can be grown close to factories in Europe and North America, the tyre production is much more efficient in logistics and manufacturing costs.

In 2018, a project started in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania to research large-scale cultivation, and, in 2019, the first series production for bicycle tyres has been launched by Continental. In the long term, the small plants shall be used to cover the annual industrial demand for natural rubber in Germany.

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