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Reporting on science, technology and innovation in Arizona and the Southwest through a collaboration from Arizona NPR member stations. This project is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.Additional stories from the Arizona Science Desk are posted at our collaborating station, KJZZ:

It's Not a Tree: Rubber Plant Could Change Tire, Southwest AZ Ag Industries

For decades, industries using rubber have looked for alternatives to supplement and back up their supply.  90% of natural rubber is from trees grown primarily in Southeast Asia.  Bridgestone Tires says a desert shrub could be the answer and they want to grow (and process) it in Southwest Arizona.  For the Arizona Science Desk, Maya Springhawk Robnett reports…

Bridgestone’s main source of natural rubber comes from Hevea trees in Southeast Asia.  But the company does not want to rely on a single region or source.  Four years ago, it began researching Guayule (pronounced why-YOU-lee), a desert shrub native to Texas that produces natural rubber.

Bridgestone already has several test crops in the state.  Dave Dierig, a plant geneticist with Bridgestone, says the company looked to southwest Arizona to grow the crop because of its climate. 

“Problems in Texas are—a lot of places get too cold.  That’s true with a lot of crops."  Dierig uses potatoes as an example: "Even though they’re originally from South America, production is better in other places.”

However, the rubber is more difficult to extract from Guayule than from the Hevea tree.  Paul Brierley with the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture says that until industry creates the infrastructure to process the plant, it isn’t likely to become a widespread crop in the Yuma area.

“It uses less water than a lot of the crops that we do," Brierley says. "It’s resistant to pests and diseases, so it doesn’t require pesticides and those kinds of things.  So it really is a nice crop, but you have to be able to sell it to somebody.”

Sam Wang, an agronomist with Bridgestone, says they intend to have the processing factories up and running by the late 2020s, and he envisions one in Yuma.  “We might build a processing factory around that area so that the whole area along the Colorado River would provide shrubs to the factory,” he explains.

Bridgestone intends to replace 30% of its natural rubber supply with rubber from Guayule crops.