Balkrishna Industries Limited (BKT), a leading off-highway tire manufacturer headquartered in India, has entered into a Joint Research Agreement with Kultevat Inc., a leading U.S. biotechnology company specialized in the cultivation and processing of TKS Dandelion as a renewable and sustainable alternative for natural rubber. The purpose of the agreement is the development of new compounding methods based on TKS Rubber to be integrated in the tire manufacturing process. All studies, analyses, experimentation and testing will be carried out at BKT´s recently inaugurated, modern Research and Development Center known as “Suresh Poddar Innovation Hub” stretching over an area of 25 acres within the company’s latest and largest production site in Bhuj, India. The R&D Center was officially inaugurated last year with the announcement of a series of ambitious projects related to sustainable materials, including research into alternatives to natural and synthetic rubber as well as the development of high-performance compounds with nanomaterials and nanocomposites. This major R&D project is part of the company’s commitment to sustainability and innovation as well as fully in line with latest industry requirements and the European Commission’s recommendations concerning critical raw materials.
Kultevat Inc., with principle place of business in St. Louis, MO, is specialized in green technology, and in particular the extraction of high-quality dandelion rubber from Taraxacum kok-saghyz (Russian Dandelion), or TKS for short, by means of an environmentally friendly process. The company has also developed methods of stabilizing TKS rubber. The agreement qualifies as a “joint research agreement” under Title 35 of the United States Codes regarding patent law. BKT, who has a certain expertise in the development of compounding methods relating to rubber, aims at developing compounding methods involving TKS rubber to be integrated as a new, renewable and sustainable raw material into the manufacturing process for off-highway tires. The agreement involves a first project stage with several sample deliveries in 2018, whereas stage 2 of the project provides the supply of one metric ton of stabilized TKS rubber to BKT by October 2019.
The TKS rubber will be delivered to BKT’s R & D Center at Bhuj. Following the Agreement with Kultevat, BKT will start with a series of studies and experimentation with the new raw material based on both the scientific method and Material Technology. TKS rubber will gradually replace or reduce the use of natural rubber. Having gained some general understanding of the physical and chemical behavior of the new raw material and the development of the first compounding methods, more specific analyses, testing and experimentation will follow to learn about more specific performance criteria such as behavior if exposed to mechanical stress; fatigue resistance; tensile strength; durability and resilience; cut, tear and heat resistance, etc. Several formulations will be tested for the development of semi-finished compounds to obtain best tire performance for the specific requirements of the most varying applications in the fields of agriculture, earthmoving, port and mining, ATV and industrial applications. According to the findings, it might be necessary to modify existing production processes and equipment. It will be a long but challenging path of analyzing, designing and conducting adequate experiments, and setting performance criteria based on conventional knowledge before the first prototype of a specific tire in a specific application will be built.
The agreement between Kultevat and BKT assumes enormous significance if we consider that the World Natural Rubber Consumption is expected to be 17 million tons by 2025. The increasing global demand, especially in the tire industry, will soon lead to a shortage of this raw material. Hevea brasiliensis is a native tree from South America and presently the only commercial source for natural rubber, which is mainly produced in Asia. The issues about Hervea is the long lead time, which means that crops need at least 6 to 8 years before they can be harvested the first time. In addition, there is land scarcity for plantation in Equatorial Zone. To meet the aforementioned demand, 8.5 million hectares of additional plantations would be required. This cannot but lead to a dead end in a very short time.
Like other tire manufacturers, BKT has been working on substitute raw material solutions, mainly Guayule and Dandelion. BKT has opted for Dandelion because of its higher latex content. This plant grows annually even in moderate climates. Its roots contain about 15 % of latex, which can be used as raw material for making rubber. Russian Dandelion was already used during another period of rubber shortage in Europe after World War II. Its use became basically forgotten after the invention of synthetic rubber. Thanks to advanced biotechnology and environmentally friendly processes, Kultevat is able to supply TKS rubber in bulk.
"Kultevat's commercialization strategy calls for the company to sell into specialty rubber markets at the outset while the company continues working with BKT to develop products for their purposes," says Daniel R. Swiger, CEO of Kultevat. "We have engaged a number of customers and are currently growing TKS for processing and rubber for prototype and testing purposes. We expect commercial sales of rubber beginning 2019."
“BKT has always been committed to innovation allotting requisite amounts regularly to Research and Development, since we consider these investments the key to success for competing in a complex global market with rapidly evolving needs,” states Dilip Vaidya, BKT President and Director of Technology. “The agreement with Kultevat for TKS rubber is a great step forward in our R&D activities in terms of both sustainability and innovation. This project is fully in line with the goals expressed in our R&D Mission: To research and develop cutting-edge Materials Technologies to support future BKT business challenges in terms of innovative product technology.”
“BKT is an ideal global partner for Kultevat, because they are the leaders in off-highway tire research, production, and sales. This will improve on our ability to rapidly scale and commercialize,” says Swiger.
Highlighting the importance of finding alternatives to natural rubber and hence of the research project with TKS rubber is the fact that in 2017 the European Commission has placed for the first time natural rubber on their list of critical materials for the EU. Behind the backdrop that raw materials are crucial to economy and that the unhindered access to certain raw materials is a growing concern across the globe, the European Commission regularly issues and updates a list of critical raw materials. The purpose of the list is to create awareness in terms of material sustainability and potential material supply risks and to develop research and innovation actions by implementing the “2030 Agenda on sustainable development and its sustainable development goals.”
Thanks to the joint research agreement with Kultevat for the development of compounding methods with TKS rubber, BKT places itself at the forefront for sustainable tire manufacturing. This project is fully in line with BKT’s attitude towards finding tire solutions that offer more performance, more efficiency, more environmental care, less pollution and a better fuel economy.