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Bridgestone bets $42M on drought-resistant rubber

Illustration of a tire and a check.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The tire giant Bridgestone is investing $42 million to commercialize a drought-resistant rubber plant in the U.S.

Why it matters: The deal is small in dollar value but big in terms of its potential impact, as Bridgestone seeks to address supply chain risks at a time when crops around the world are being rocked by historic water shortages.

Catch up fast: Rubber is used in more than 5,000 products, from adhesives to textiles to erasers. About 70% of production, though, goes toward tires.

  • The U.S. produces virtually no rubber. About 95% of the world's supply of the material comes from Southeast Asia.

Driving the news: Bridgestone aims to plant 25,000 acres of guayule (pronounced "why-you-lee"), a woody shrub that's native to the Southwestern U.S.

  • The company has invested $100 million since 2012 in researching the plant. It made the first tire from guayule-derived rubber in 2015.
  • The effort's gotten buy-in from the feds, including a 2021 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Zoom in: About half of rubber in the tire industry is "synthetic" rubber, the other half is "natural." Guayule-derived rubber would be natural rubber.

  • Natural rubber is typically used in higher-load applications, such as construction vehicles, due to its higher strength and durability.

Of note: "We're diversifying biologically to other rubber producing plant species, and diversifying geographically from tropical regions into arid regions," William Niaura, executive director for sustainable materials at Bridgestone Americas, tells Axios.

  • "It’s a diversification that brings those things you’re looking for, in terms of supply chain security and on-shoring production of critical materials."

What's next: Bridgestone aims to bring guayule-based rubber to commercial production by 2030.

  • The company is also keeping an eye toward monetizing leftover plant matter, known as bagasse, as a feedstock for biofuels or biochemicals. It also runs a research center and 281-acre guayule farm in Arizona.
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