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 Bio-Fuels, Natural Rubber And The World Food Supply

MARISA MULLETT - Cutting-edge research in food, agricultural and environmental sciences impacts bio-fuel production, natural rubber manufacturing, the global food supply and much more. This past week, I spent a day in Wooster with researchers at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (Ohio State University's research arm, OARDC). The scientists shared some of their research projects that are gaining momentum, private industry support, and international attention.

One major research effort focuses on finding a way to use dandelions for domestic natural rubber production. Right now, the United States imports 100 percent of its natural rubber from Southeast Asia. However, blight is killing some of the trees in Asia that produce this rubber. Research that is unfolding in Wooster will provide the United States with the knowledge-base it needs to produce the rubber if, and when, the trees in Asia cannot keep up with demand.

According to scientists at OARDC, there are 2,000 plants in the world that naturally produce rubber. But, only a few of them have high-quality rubber properties, including dandelions.

Ohio State University has partnered with local industry and the two are in the process of building a small-scale plant that would process the rubber. They are optimistic that this plant will serve as a model for other large-scale plants in the future.

On the economic side of this effort, there is indeed a market for the rubber. In 2002, natural rubber sold for approximately $.25 a pound and in 2008 it sells for more than $1.25 a pound.

Another hot area of research at OARDC is alternative energy production. Researchers and extension professionals at the research station have been successful in turning food waste into biogas, which is an efficient, eco-friendly, energy source.

By using anaerobic digesters, the researchers convert food from grocery stores (produce and other products that have exceeded their shelf life and would otherwise head off to a landfill) and waste from food processing facilities (such as Frito-Lay, Kraft, and cheese plants) into methane.

It is estimated that there is enough food processing waste in Ohio to meet 65 percent of the state's residential energy needs.

Another area of research that has been underway for many years is examining the soil quality and crop yields in fields that have been conventionally tilled (with a chisel plow, etc. before planting) versus those that are not tilled, referred to as no-till.

At the research facility, there are small corn and soybeans test plots growing side-by-side. When the scientists grabbed a handful of soil from the tilled and no-till plots and compared them, the difference was very clear. No-till soil has a higher level of organic matter than tilled soil, making it much darker. Soil that has not been tilled is also less compacted than soil that has been worked. This increases the plant's ability to establish a strong root system and the soil's ability to hold and store water.

In central Ohio, tilling the soil has a substantial negative impact on yields. Researchers have found that no-till corn fields produce, on average, 17 bushels per acre more than fields that have been tilled.

OARDC is indeed a historic research facility that is dedicated to advancing society in the areas of food, agricultural, and environmental sciences. Ohio State University Extension and OARDC partner for many tours, activities and educational workshops throughout the year. Contact your local Extension office or OARDC ( for more information about these opportunities.

AUG 9, 2008 - Marissa Mullett is an Ohio State University Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources/community development in Coshocton County