Monday, April 30, 2007

Another Rubber Tree Plant

In the Arizona desert, the start of something big--or anyway something that feels good on your hands.

From: Issue 115 | May 2007 | Page 42 | By: John Rosenthal
Forty minutes south of Phoenix, just past the once-sleepy town of Maricopa and the last bit of suburban sprawl, the Arizona desert gives way to thousands of acres lined with row after row of funny little shrubs. This is guayule (pronounced why-you-lay), a plant indigenous to the southwestern United States, now being cultivated in droves by a company you've never heard of in hopes of revolutionizing the rubber industry.

That company is Yulex (the name is a mash-up of "guayule" and "latex"), founded in 1997 with the intention of making guayule a household name. Or at least a competitive product. And that's the challenge here: Scientists have long known about the natural rubber contained in guayule bark, but they've never figured out how to extract it for less than the cost of importing tropical rubber (Hevea brasiliensis). The United States actually produced rubber from guayule during World War II, when imports from Southeast Asia were cut off. But once the war ended, economics prevailed, and America torched all its guayule fields.

Nobody gave guayule another thought until the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, when a surge in rubber-glove usage revealed how many people were allergic to latex (about 10% of health-care workers, according to OSHA). There are synthetic alternatives, but they're just not as stretchy as natural rubber. Guayule performs like Hevea but contains none of the proteins that cause latex allergies.

"Man has never been able to make rubber as well as Mother Nature," says Jeff Martin, Yulex's CEO. Martin is a career rubber guy, first as a scientist at Johnson & Johnson, then as a sales exec for London Rubber Co. and Safeskin Corp. In 1999, he joined Yulex, which had been formed around the work of Katrina Cornish (now Yulex's head of R&D), a U.S. Agriculture Department scientist who for 15 years led the agency's efforts to develop domestic rubber sources. Martin figured out how to double the latex yield of a guayule plant while screening out the proteins that cause latex allergies.

Since then, Yulex has been stockpiling additional patents and planting 4,000 acres of guayule throughout Arizona. The company has actually been producing guayule latex at its Maricopa facility since December 2006. The operation takes place in a Rube Goldberg-esque mousetrap of a structure that looks like a four-story oil derrick. From newly harvested plants to 55-gallon drums of liquid latex, the whole process is mostly automated; only five humans work amid the whipping desert winds and the pervasive smell of ammonia (a stabilizer and antimicrobial agent).

Seemingly, Yulex has reached its tipping point. It signed an exclusive deal in 2005 to sell its latex worldwide through Centrotrade, an international natural-rubber supplier and distributor. Now, Martin says, manufacturers are just waiting on approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which is expected by July. Assuming that happens, they will target a boutique niche: medical devices such as catheters or angioplasty balloons. In this market, guayule's nonallergenic qualities merit a premium over Hevea, while its greater elasticity and lower resistance make it a better choice than similarly priced synthetics.

Look for guayule surgical gloves, too. They don't cause hand fatigue like synthetic gloves do. The guayule gloves I tried at Yulex's test labs were incredibly soft. (I didn't feel right testing the guayule condoms, but I'm told they're just as effective at preventing STDs.)

Martin estimates the medical niche alone is worth $7 billion. "Our model is not to replace Hevea," he says. "It's to capture the share carved out by synthetics." And really, Yulex has no hope of going mass-market unless tropical rubber prices explode. If that changes (and it could: The International Rubber Study Group forecasts a 50% increase in rubber consumption by 2020), Yulex hopes to meet demand with guayule consumer goods. Utility gloves! Gaskets! Rubber bands! To make that leap, it would have to expand its guayule acreage to 400,000; supplying tire manufacturers, pretty much the holy grail of rubber, would require more like 4 million acres. (Beyond Arizona, Yulex is contracting with farmers in Australia.)

But wait, there's more. What's left from the guayule plant after rubber is extracted can be turned into adhesives, coatings, even termite-resistant particleboard. "Guayule also has a high energy content that has potential applications as a biofuel," says Colleen McMahan, a USDA research chemist. (Hey, guayule could be both a floor wax and a dessert topping.)

Standing amid the Maricopa guayule fields, I feel a profound sense of being in on the ground floor. Martin predicts that in 10 years, Yulex will be known for making a full range of guayule goods. "We're not talking about just coming out with a new product," Martin says. "This is a whole new industry."

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