Sustainability: Guayule Rubber

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A Casa Grande-based company is using a desert plant to create rubber and make tires. PanAridus’s rubber made from guayule was used in multiple components of test tires. Mike Fraley, CEO of PanAridus, will give us details.

TED SIMONS: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Sustainability" looks at PanAridus, a Casa Grande-based company that uses a desert plant called guayule to create rubber that can be used to make tires. Here more is Mike Fraley, CEO of PanAridus. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon."

MIKE FRALEY: Thank you, Ted.

TED SIMONS: You have some stuff there, I want to get to that in a second here. We're talking about why -- what is the product, guayule?

MIKE FRALEY: Congratulations on pronouncing it correctly, I know it's a little bit of a tongue twister at times. Guayule is a native desert species, it's native to Northern Mexico and Texas. It's been used over history for production of various things but primarily known for its ability to produce natural rubber?

TED SIMONS: The polymer is used for that, is that how it works.

MIKE FRALEY: It produces a polymer that is--that can be used for multitude of natural rubber applications.

TED SIMONS: We're seeing it grown here now. This is what's going down here at Casa Grande, correct?

MIKE FRALEY: That's one of our research plots, yes, that's correct.

TED SIMONS: Basically this stuff is grown and -- what do you do? You pluck it out of the ground? Harvest it right there? How does it work? How is the transformation possible?

MIKE FRALEY: One of the things we've done at PanAridus is we wanted to make this economically feasible. We've increased the genetic potential to yield more natural rubber per plant, per acre. That was tantamount to our success. Since we've been able to successfully do that and patent a lot our genetics, we can look at how you can efficiently and economically harvest a crop, extract the natural rubber, as well as the coproducts it produces.

TED SIMONS: There's a tree grown in tropical Asia. Is this the same kind of process?

MIKE FRALEY: The only similarity is the polymer itself. The rubber tree produces the same type of a polymer. Where it comes from is a much, much different place. They tap the tree, collect the latex, essentially centrifuge it to increase the solids and you have a skim or a block rubber. With our guayule, the rubber molecules are in the bark so we extract it with a much, much different process.

TED SIMONS: Are you going explain that process? Can you do that with the stuff here?

MIKE FRALEY: We certainly, with the natural rubber it's produced in tropical regions of the world. It's over 12 million metric tons that's produced annually and all of it is done by hand. Conversely, the process we have is an arid species, it uses much, much, much less water, and it's all mechanized. We don't have some of the constraints the market currently has.

TED SIMONS: Do you pluck the whole thing out of the ground. Do you shave it off? What do you do?

MIKE FRALEY: We cut it and leave the root below ground so then that root can regenerate within a 12 month cycle then we can harvest it again. We can get about four or five harvests out of one seeding, one planting of it.

TED SIMONS: When you use most of the plant, which again you're going to show us in a second -- when you use most of the plant, then you can go biomass on it, can't you?

MIKE FRALEY: That's what's really, really neat about this, it's a 100% useable species. We can produce natural rubber but it also produces as much resin and that has very high values for flavor, fragrance and even the adhesive markets. And then the bagasse which is what we call the biomass, which is, I have a sample here, this biomass has very, very high heat or energy properties to it. It can be used for cogeneration. We have work going on to extract it and make jet fuel with it. Or we can use it for building materials; we can make a medium density fiberboard for building applications.

TED SIMONS: This is some sort of--this is literally a particleboard, correct?
MIKE FRALEY: Made from guayule.
TED SIMONS: Made entirely from the bark?

MIKE FRALEY: After we extract it.

TED SIMONS: You've got your tires made; now you can make this stuff, as well.

MIKE FRALEY: We have the natural rubber people can make tires with. We have the resins going to adhesives and flavor and fragrance. Then this biomass which has a lot of applications for building materials, fuel and even jet A fuel.

TED SIMONS: What's the bag underneath, on the bottom there?

MIKE FRALEY: This?

TED SIMONS: Yeah.

MIKE FRALEY: That's what most people are looking for. This is the natural rubber produced from PanAridus.

TED SIMONS: That's it, that's the rubber?

MIKE FRALEY: Yes, sir.

TED SIMONS: How much of that is used in a tire?

MIKE FRALEY: Depends on the application. Natural rubber is the largest component that goes into tire manufacturing. Depending on the type it could be 25% of the raw material up to maybe 70%. The more demand you need for applications like truck tires, tractor tires, aviation tires, the more natural rubber that you need. Synthetics can't emulate what natural rubber can do.

TED SIMONS: As far as the difference between natural rubber and synthetic rubber, in terms of making a tire and getting use out of it, compare.

MIKE FRALEY: We have to remember that synthetic rubber is petrochemical based. One of the mantras we have is sustainability at PanAridus. We're not depending upon petrochemical-based products. Hence we have a biological species we can use to replace a lot of these petrochemical-based commodities.

TED SIMONS: The global demand now, first of all, national demand, U.S. demand for natural rubber. Global demand I would imagine would be huge, as well.

TED SIMONS: What are you seeing out there?

MIKE FRALEY: The sky's the limit. The natural rubber market just as a commodity its self is probably close to about $40 billion annually. The United States consumes about 12% of that, and we import every ounce of it. We're totally reliant upon importation of this raw material. So what we're doing is not displacing what's going on with the natural rubber market but we're looking to make Arizona the leader in rubber production for the United States.

TED SIMONS: Looking into this, correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't this plant used to make tires like, you know, many, many generations ago or a long time ago?

MIKE FRALEY: Guayule has a rich history, it certainly does. At one point in history it was about 50% of all our natural rubber was produced from this plant. That was during the times of model A and model T. The technology and demands for natural rubber, how it's used has changed over that 80-90 year process. But you're correct, guayule has had a very rich history throughout the United States.

TED SIMONS: What's changed back then and why would that not apply to today?

MIKE FRALEY: The biggest limiting factor that we had with guayule was the ability to recognize the importance of agriculture and the importance of agriculture and how to produce the species. One of the limitations we had back then as compared to now is that we've greatly increased its yield capability. We've increased it almost 300%. Now we have a proposition with the growing community that we can not only use less water to produce its species but it makes economic sense at the farm gate to raise it in comparison to other products that might demand higher inputs.
TED SIMONS: How long of a growing season does guayule have?
MIKE FRALEY: Again, it's a pre-annual. Let me compare to it what we all know as the rubber tree. The rubber tree takes seven to ten years to get the first harvest. With guayule we can have the first harvest in 18 months and have another harvest every 12 months after that. We're able to meet the supply chain much more quickly and much more efficiently.
TED SIMONS: And you have how many acres down there?
MIKE FRALEY: We have enough seed, here's the key, Seed is an absolute key of high quality. Yielding seed is what's taken to make it at the farm gate. We have enough seed or coffers if you will, to put about 100 thousand acres currently.
TED SIMONS: That equals about 16% of U.S. market demands at this time?

MIKE FRALEY: What we really want to do, again, is we want to make Arizona the capital for rubber production.

TED SIMONS: I know there were recent tests on guayule tires in Texas or something like that. What was found?

MIKE FRALEY: Actually we were involved with that. We're part of a larger group in bio research and development initiative that entails Cooper, USDA, NRS, and ourselves. We're the material supplier for that. We've produced enough to where we've actually made tires. All of us have had a chance to drive it on a test track in Purcell, Texas. The bottom line was the performance was outstanding. We were trying to be optimistic and hoping it would be comparable to what Havea rubber does today but actually there are performance differences with this polymer compared to Havea.

TED SIMONS: Thank you so much for joining us.

MIKE FRALEY: Thank you, appreciate it.

Mike Fraley: CEO of PanAridus

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