Research on guayule rubber has been conducted for almost a century now, since leaf blight wiped out the natural rubber industry in South America. While industrialists such as Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie labored to restart the commercial rubber plantations in South America without success, a few others looked into domestic alternatives. Early work focused on indigenous species of guayule found in the desert southwest of the U.S. and northern Mexico. Prior to amassing his great fortune in steel, Andrew Carnegie once lamented, “I should have chosen rubber.”
The first commercial venture, the Continental Mexican Rubber Company began operations. The United States imported 42,000 tons of guayule rubber from Mexico, accounting for 24% of the total rubber consumed. All native stands were depleted and the enterprise ceased operations in 1912.
The first domestic enterprise, the Intercontinental Rubber Company (IRC), was formed in San Diego, California by the Rockefeller Family. Through the twenties, the company produced significant amounts of guayule rubber annually from plants grown in California. IRC developed financial problems during the Great Depression and struggled thereafter against imported tropical rubber from Southeast Asia.
Accelerated research with polybutadiene and styrene butadiene rubber began in the United States after significant technological advances were made in Germany with synthetic polymers.
America’s supply of natural rubber from Southeast Asia was cut off by the Japanese during the war. Congress passed legislation to finance the Emergency Rubber Project to develop guayule as a commercial alternative to tropical rubber.
Seeking alternative sources of natural rubber, the U.S. Government purchased the Intercontinental Rubber Company’s holdings in California, and also began the commercial scale up of polybutadiene and styrene butadiene rubber. Over 32,000 acres of guayule were commercially farmed in California and Arizona. While the yields from those stands of plants were not sufficient to be commercially viable, the demands of war supported the concept of rubber production at any cost and demonstrated guayule’s excellent performance characteristics in a broad variety of applications.
The United States agreed not to allow production of guayule rubber to compete in the open market with production of tropical rubber latex owned by British interests. The U.S. believed the emergence of the synthetic rubber industry would supply America’s needs in the future.
President Truman ordered the destruction of all guayule stocks of seed and the entire remaining stock of standing and harvested plants. 21 million pounds of rubber were burned or otherwise destroyed. Documents relating to guayule bulk rubber production were then classified. Almost 0.5 billion dollars (adjusted to today’s inflation) in research and development results were lost.
Natural rubber made a strong comeback – 100% imported from tropical countries, mostly Southeast Asia.
Following the oil crisis, prices of both natural and synthetic rubber skyrocketed. Congress realized the potential problems that another disruption of natural rubber supply would generate and authorized the Native Latex Act of 1978 to restart the domestic rubber programs based on guayule.
In a joint venture with Firestone Tire, the Department of Defense planted several hundred acres of guayule on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona. A $24 million (inflation adjusted based on today’s dollars) processing plant was built and a normal crop yield was developed. Political conflicts between the Native Americans and the government/corporate joint venture made further development impractical.
Meanwhile, the emergence of the AIDs epidemic created an enormous need for latex rubber products. Southeast Asia added manufacturing capacity to supply billions of additional tropical latex gloves to the United States.
Thousands of healthcare workers developed allergies to tropical latex, and 16 healthcare workers who died of anaphylaxis. In 1991, the FDA issued a Medical Alert. The development of alternative, non-allergenic latex became imperative.
The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) began researching guayule crop in the 1990s to produce natural rubber. Guayule latex shows no cross-reactivity with antibodies raised against tropical latex proteins. Latex sensitive individuals can use products derived from guayule latex safely.
Yulex significantly improved the process to be more efficient and scalable, thus setting the stage for commercial latex extraction.
Yulex Corporation was founded. Yulex began a dedicated Guayule acreage expansion program, planting acreage in Arizona in the Maricopa Agriculture Center (an enterprise associated with the University of Arizona). This program was subsequently expanded to the commercial farming community to provide enough high-yielding seed to grow commercial quantities of guayule plant. Yulex began developing a strong intellectual property portfolio to protect the company and its customers, with focused research on crop science and novel methods of rubber and resin extraction.
Yulex Corporation expanded agricultural operations in the US Southwest as well as internationally to Australia.
ASTM International announced a new category of natural rubber latex based on low protein and high performance standard (ASTM D5712) that (only) Yulex Biorubber could meet.
Yulex Biorubber was used to pilot balloon-catheter products. In a historic milestone, the FDA approved Yulex Biorubber gloves for medical uses.
Yulex Corporation opened a biorefinery for processing guayule, in Chandler, AZ, which began large-volume guayule processing and latex extraction. The applications of the biorubber in both solid and emulsion forms increased in scope and major collaborations were forged with a number of industry leaders to develop consumer and industrial products that would be launched by 2013.
Yulex won the Arizona Governor’s Celebration of Innovation Award in 2009 AND 2011!
In July 2012, Yulex received a $6.9 million USDA-DoE grant as part of a research consortium. Partnering with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Cooper Tire, Yulex will research enhanced manufacturing processes, testing and utilization of guayule natural rubber as a strategic source of raw material in tires, and evaluating the remaining biomass of the guayule plant as a source of bio-fuel for the transportation industry, as well as improving agronomic practices, developing genetic information and undertaking a lifecycle analysis.
Yulex is pioneering systems to revolutionize the rubber industry and reduce world dependence on a small number of oil and rubber producing countries.
Yulex commercially extracts natural rubber for medical devices and specialty consumer products. Yulex is piloting programs for producing rubber, resins and biomass from guayule using its proprietary extraction processes in accordance with its zero-waste strategy.
Yulex will have several consumer and industrial products readily available in the market, through their global product development partners, as well as medical products.
New gasification technology will create electrical power and syngas that is burned for green energy. A conversion technology to make bioethanol from guayule syngas will run Yulex’s operations with the excess sold to the electricity grid.
Yulex cost-effectively will convert guayule biomass for energy or ethanol production. Energy from biomass sources will have been rising year over year in the U.S. and guayule will be an economical alternative to cotton and alfalfa for growers, and given its high energy content, will be an attractive cultivated crop. Yulex will extract high density liquid biofuels for jet fuel applications as well.
Yulex will produce guayule resin for bioadhesives, bandages, multipolymers, insect biocontrols, pharmaceuticals, building materials, biofuels and many more uses to fulfill demand in many resin markets.