Forging paths for plant-based sustainable sources of rubber, fuel

April 22, 2013

ASU engineer Amy Landis has a pivotal role in a new potentially far-reaching effort to use biomaterial to produce rubber in a more environmentally and economically sustainable way.

She will lead the sustainability assessment for a four-year project teaming Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, Yulex Corporation, ASU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Amy Landis biomaterials research Download Full Image

The project has been awarded a $6.9 million grant through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative of the USDA and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The endeavor focuses on the guayule plant (pronounced why-you-lee), from which latex can be extracted and turned into rubber. It holds promise for being a feasible alternative to petroleum-based synthetics that are now the predominant form of rubber in tires and many other products using rubber.

In addition to producing rubber, guayule material could be used to make industrial, medical, consumer and energy products, as well as biofuels. Substantial use of the plant could reduce the United States’ dependence on producers in other countries for the nation’s supply of rubber.

Exploring full array of impacts

Landis is an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. She is also a senior sustainability scientist in the university’s Global Institute of Sustainability.

Her role in the guayule project is to help ensure its use will, in fact, be sustainable in multiple ways.

“Just because you are using a biomaterial does not guarantee what you do will be a ‘green’ venture,” Landis says. “I will be looking at the entire process of creating rubber products, from the agricultural process of growing and harvesting guayule, extracting and processing natural latex, and manufacturing natural rubber tires. The sustainability assessment will evaluate factors such as local impact on the land where guayule is grown and the how cultivation of the crop changes the landscape for the neighboring farmers.”

Her sustainability analysis will also take into consideration “human elements” and community impacts. “This involves looking at things like the potential for job creation and who will be employed throughout the process” of growing and processing guayule to make rubber on a large scale, as well as the implications for communities’ quality of life, she says.

“Our contribution to the sustainability assessment includes a complete life cycle assessment of natural rubber tires,” she says. “We don’t want to ignore or overlook any short-term or long-term impact.”

Potentially far-reaching endeavor

Increased use of guayule could eventually offer a particular benefit for Arizona’s economy. The state is the center of operations for the project partner corporation Yulex, which is already producing some products using guayule, including mattresses and pillows.

The Yulex corporate headquarters is close to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Its manufacturing facility is in Chandler, and the company gets its supply of the plant from some of the eight or more commercial farmers growing the crop in Arizona.

The reach of the project promises to extend much further through lead project partner Cooper Tire and Rubber Company, which is the parent company of a family of companies in 11 countries that specialize in the design, manufacture, marketing and sales of passenger car and light truck tires. The Ohio-based company also has joint ventures, affiliates and subsidiaries that specialize in medium truck, motorcycle and racing tires.

Both Yulex and Cooper have developed company initiatives aimed at operating their enterprises in socially and ecologically responsible ways.

As part of the project, Landis also will explore the impacts of ramping up the use of nonlatex portions of the guayule plant to produce biofuel, bioenergy and fertilizers.

Boosting biobased energy and products

In a separate project, Landis will team with University of Pittsburgh chemical engineer Vikas Khanna on a sustainability research project being supported by a recent $350,000 grant to ASU from the USDA.

The project’s main thrust is to provide data to guide alignment of varying local, state and national policies to set consistent parameters for development and production of biofuels.

It’s part of a larger federal program aimed at spurring the production of bioenergy and biobased products, while at the same time ensuring the environmental and socioeconomic sustainability of such ventures.

Another of the program’s goals in promoting further development of biomaterials to produce fuel and energy is to create new markets for the nation’s agricultural products.

ASU is among universities selected to receive grants from the program through a competitive process. Applicants for the grant awarded to ASU included some of the top university sustainability research programs in the country, Landis says.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Algae testbed leaders look to solve national energy needs

April 22, 2013

Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3) members from across the nation descended upon the ASU Polytechnic campus April 15-18 to discuss strategies for advancing research and development of algae-based technologies for biofuels and other valuable co-products. 

Led by the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) at ASU, representatives from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Cellana, Touchstone Research Laboratory, Valicor Renewables, California Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Texas at Austin, and Commercial Algae Management have partnered to form ATP3. ATP3 aims to facilitate innovation, empower knowledge creation and accelerate growth of the emergent algal energy industry. Download Full Image

During the kickoff meeting, members of ATP3 strategized how to effectively meet the needs of testbed users across the world and collaboratively produce relevant data and standard analytical and production methods to inform algae-based solutions for the energy, carbon capture and scale-up needs of public and private markets.

“The ATP3 kickoff meeting gave all of the partners of ATP3 a chance to discuss how we will support public and private institutions in finding solutions to the nation's energy challenges,” said Gary Dirks, director of ATP3, and ASU LightWorks, the university initiative that pulls light-inspired research at ASU under one strategic framework. “Working together, we will push the envelope on algae-based sciences and produce usable, sustainable solutions to carbon capture and fuel needs – to name a few.”

The ATP3 project is made possible by a $15 million U.S. Department of Energy competitive grant from its Bioenergy Technologies Office. This funding allows ATP3 to support the operation of existing outdoor algae cultivation systems and produce algae that can be used for real-world solutions such as biofuel.

Partner testbed facilities are located in Arizona, Hawaii, California, Ohio and Georgia.

The ATP3 framework allows partners to work individually within their own institutions or collaboratively, to coordinate analytical and technical support from the larger ATP3 network.

“The framework we are creating at ATP3 is unprecedented,” said John McGowen, Portfolio Manager in ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development’s Project Management Office and Director of Operations and Program Management for ATP3. “By providing closely coordinated, harmonized and objective standards for algal production and biomass compositional analysis protocols across our network of testbed facilities, we will have the ability to reduce the uncertainties around biomass productivity, oil compositional quality and yields.  ATP3 will make these standardized and validated methods, as well as the high impact data from our long term cultivation feedstock trials accessible to the algal biofuels modeling and R&D community.”

The collaborative effort of ATP3 not only serves the group mission to accelerate algae-based research and development, but also helps partner agencies advance their own goals.

"Partnering with industry leaders through the ATP3 framework enables collaboration to more quickly solve underlying challenges in support of commercial algae technology solutions," said Lee Tonkovich, vice president of Research & Development at Heliae LLC, an algae technology company in Gilbert, Ariz.

The ATP3 meeting took place at AzCATI, a hub for research, testing, and commercialization of algae-based products at the Polytechnic Campus. AzCATI provides open test and evaluation facilities for the algae industry and research community. AzCATI is embedded within ASU’s College of Technology and Innovation and is part of the LightWorks initiative, supported by ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

For more information about ATP3 visit