Producing Natural Rubber from Sunflowers for Alternative Rubber Crops in the United States

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science & Technology

    Sunflower farms brought joy during the summer months of the pandemic. Many people found a ray of sunshine in sunflower fields, spending time outdoors with family and friends while taking photos and posting them on social media.

    For some time now, David Woodburn has viewed sunflowers as hope for the future! Woodburn is CEO of Edison Agrosciences. In 2020, the St. Louis-based biotechnology startup produced its first sheet of natural rubber from sunflower leaves. The sunflower rubber was produced from sunflowers grown in a lab at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Woodburn said as far as he knows, it’s the world’s first sample of natural rubber produced from sunflower leaves. Edison Agrosciences used gene editing technology to increase a sunflower’s natural rubber production for extraction.

    “Adding more rubber producing genes to the sunflower plant,” said Woodburn. “It’s not just natural rubber, but it’s also the type of natural rubber, like molecular weight. We may be able to design what type of natural rubber the plant produces by altering the genes.”

    Woodburn said an alternative source of natural rubber is important because 90% of the world’s natural rubber comes from one geographic area – Southeast Asia.

    “Natural rubber is taken from the para rubber tree. It’s an unbelievably manual, slow process,” he explained. “It’s very susceptible to disease because you’re slicing the bark almost on a continual basis.”

    The onset of disease would greatly impact production of the world’s supply of natural rubber. Woodburn said the current alternative would be to rely on synthetic rubber derived from petroleum

    “Believe it or not, even with the technology we have today, synthetic rubber doesn’t meet all the performance characteristics of natural rubber. High-performance applications are maybe certain medical devices as simple as tubing or gaskets,” said Woodburn. “Aircraft tires are 100% natural rubber because of the performance required from heat to cold, and the weight they are supporting.“

    Creating self-reliance for natural rubber appeals to the U.S. Department of Defense. Edison Agrosciences received nearly $2 million in federal grant funding from the DOD. With the money, Edison is developing sunflower as a production system for natural rubber used in defense and civilian aviation

    The rubber market is valued at over $100 billion annually with natural rubber having a share of about $42 billion. It’s essential for manufacturing tens of thousands of consumer, medical, and industrial products.

    “We’re never going to replace with sunflower plants all the natural rubber that is produced by para rubber trees in Southeast Asia, but keep in mind, the United States doesn’t produce any of its own natural rubber. Zero. All imported, it’s about a million tons per year. Now if we take the peak sunflower acreage in the U.S. and our target yield of natural rubber in sunflower, we can meet 80% of that demand with sunflower”

    Woodburn pointed out there are about 2,000 different plants that produce some level of natural rubber, including lettuce and dandelions.

    “Sunflower isn’t the densest or the highest producer of natural rubber. But when you think about the potential of a large plant in an already commercialized crop, it has the potential to be the easiest way to commercialize an alternative source,”

    Providing another ray of sunshine, by means of more potential opportunities for farmers.