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Arizona shrub could be answer to carmakers’ material supply problem

PHOENIX — Cars use a lot of rubber. Engine mounts, hoses, floor mats and of course tires. Supplies are getting tight in southeast Asia but the guayule shrub grown in Arizona is one of the most promising alternatives.

“It doesn’t require any irrigation. It’s a naturally growing shrub in Arizona so there’s really nothing required as far as a water supply,” Janice Tardiff of Ford Motors said. “With rubber trees, you can’t tap them for latex until the tree is seven years old. Whereas guayule has a life of 18 months.”

Tardiff is an elastomer materials technical expert in research and advanced engineering for the automaker. She said guayule was being used in high-performance gear such as wetsuits and medical gloves.

“We want to see if we can cultivate and improve the domestic rubber supply so we can avoid price fluctuations, import costs as well as provide a sustainable source for natural rubber in the United States,” Tardiff said.

To test the viability of using the plant’s leaves for automotive industry applications, Ford is partnering with Ohio State University, and using guayule from local companies Panaridus based in Casa Grande and Yulex in Chandler.

Although additional research must be conducted to determine how much rubber could be conserved by switching to alternative sources, Ford estimated that it could be as much as 50 percent, depending on the car part.

Tardiff anticipated that the company could have an alternative rubber prototype within the next year.

“I would imagine we will see it on vehicles definitely five years or less, could be sooner,” she said.

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