Like TV’s MacGyver hacking together a flamethrower from a rubber hose, a paper clip, and some old gym socks, scientists have a knack for solving problems by putting seemingly random items to good use in unexpected ways. Here’s a look at just a few of the strange and surprising engineering transformations that are being cooked up in labs across the world.
High Hopes for Making Tire Rubber from Dandelions
To ensure the steady supply of natural rubber for tires, manufacturers are hoping to harness flower power in a big way.
Rubber can be made in a lab out of petroleum byproducts, but tires require a significant proportion of natural rubber made from the milky latex produced by the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis. Why? For one, natural rubber is superior to its synthetic cousins in terms of hardiness and flexibility. Unfortunately, extracting it exacts a sizable ecological toll—as rubber plantations metastasize through forests, biodiversity decreases, erosion rises, and watersheds are stressed out. And even without human intervention, rubber tree plantations in Asia are vulnerable to the same fungal diseases that decimated natural rubber production in Brazil.
Enter the humble dandelion. Scientists across the world are competing to improve a Central Asian strain of this common weed that can supply latex sap on a large enough scale to create a new kind of rubber farm. Flower boosters say dandelions have the advantage over trees because they’re quicker to mature and less vulnerable to pests. To better optimize dandelions for rubber production, researchers are using conventional breeding and genetic engineering techniques to boost the plants’ size and tweak their shape, aiming for thicker taproots (that are richer in latex sap) and upright leaves (that are easier for harvesting machines to pick up).