Monday, December 26, 2011

Surviving the Rubber Crisis

It is hard to find a bleaker Christmas Day than Thursday, December 25, 1941, though Valley Forge in 1778, Washington, DC in 1862, New York in 1929, and the country, still in tears, in 1963, all kind of crowd in.  Christmas Day of 1941, Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese and Manila was declared an open city on Boxing Day.  The sweep continued throughout the winter and spring until Japan commanded nearly all the South Pacific and seemed unstoppable and everywhere.   

That day, suffering from an undiagnosed dementia, my grandmother took my infant brother from his crib and hid him underneath a hedge in a corner of the yard as a column of Japanese armor clattered by and Japanese officers shouted orders as they turned off Myers Court and on to West Second in Medford, Oregon.

The country was shaken as it realized what it had to do and do very quickly.  The Japanese advance in the Pacific made one of the most critical pieces, rubber, unavailable. It was America's number one agricultural import and fundamental to the design and manufacture of a remarkable number of things needed to protect the country.

On that Christmas Day, America was using rubber at a rate of 775,000 tons each year and had a stockpile of just 600,000 tons on hand. The Japanese had 97% of the world’s rubber supply and there was no clear plan for an alternative except to suck rubber from the civilian economy and apply it to the military.  The country that would, in three years, build 50,000 bombers, 64,000 fighter aircraft, 15,000 cargo planes and 6,000 ships had not yet quite invented itself as that country. 

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America needed time to create a strategy and put it in motion.  Its first step was to put the rubber part of the economy under an aggressive conservation and diversion program that restricted most civilian uses of rubber and diverted rubber to a stockpile that would support the country's defense while it developed synthetic or other natural alternatives.

Sometime that afternoon, in preparation for a hearing on the national rubber emergency, a planner in Washington, DC might have left the dinner table and his family to read over once again the distressing material he was getting ready for the briefing at which his boss would present the following impressive numbers:

It takes 32 pounds of rubber to put one soldier in the field.

It takes a half a ton of rubber to build a fighter aircraft, double that for a larger bomber. 

A tank requires more than a ton of rubber, a battleship needs 75 tons.
Bernard Baruch
Disaster Wise
After the new year, with the complete attention of the government and some of its most capable citizens – financier Bernard Baruch, the President of Harvard, James Conant and the President of MIT, Karl Compton – assembled a strategy in just 30 days and announced it in June of 1942.  It named a rubber director who had complete authority on the supply and use of the commodity.  The country also set out on an immediate construction program to make synthetic rubber out of oil and began the construction or conversion of 51 factories to make the inputs necessary for a successful synthetic rubber product.
As a hedge, the government also initiated testing on two natural rubber sources – Guayule, (why yool' e) a sagebrush looking plant that grows wild in the southwest of the US and Mexico, and the Russian Dandelion, another wild plant growing in Soviet Union Province of Kazakstan. 

Bob Emerson at the left, Kenzi Nojaki, standing at left
Library of Congress  (Photo by Dorthea Lange)
Guayule had been studied for many years and was a clear choice for the government research project that got underway in Salinas, California.  Soon, 1,000 people were growing 32,000 acres of it and perfecting the process of squeezing the latex out of the plant.  
At the same time, a Cal Tech professor in plant physiology named Bob Emerson was trying to figure out what he could do to help American citizens who had just been incarcerated at the Manzanar detention center across the state in the eastern California desert.  Emerson was aware that there were several scientists behind the fence at Manzanar like Kenji Nozaki, a Chemist from the University of California and Morganlander Nishimura, a CalTech nuclear physicist. Emerson thought they should create their own Guayule project and they agreed and set to work.   

The US Department of Agriculture would not give Manzanar seeds from the Salinas project, only discarded cuttings.  With a hundred dollars worth of chemicals and the cuttings, the internees were soon growing 5 acres of Guayule and producing a stronger and more flexible product to the one coming out of the big farm at Salinas and, because they chose a different process for extracting the latex, they were getting two and a half times as much of it per acre.  The USDA was not amused and cut off the water to the Manzanar Project for a time.

The Russian Dandelion had been discovered in 1929 as part of a systematic effort by the Soviets to find alternative sources of natural rubber.  The Russians soon narrowed the search to the dandelion as the most promising source and made it a state secret.  By the time Germany invaded Russian in 1942, 200,000 acres were under cultivation and Russian planes were landing on dandelion root latex from Kazahkstan. 

After much coaxing, the US received in 1942 two large sacks of dandelion seeds from the Russians and began to study the best soils and weather conditions for growing the plant.  The project was carried out in 42 states and 160 different locations. 
By the end of 1944, the two alternative searches had produced over 100,000 tons of rubber and a vast knowledge base of each alternative.  The products made from home grown rubber performed well.  But the incredible success of the synthetic program ended all thought of new natural alternatives. 

Toward the end of 1942, the four companies in the synthetic rubber program – Firestone, Goodyear, United States Rubber and Goodrich had produced 2,220 tons of rubber.  By 1945, they and other companies were producing over 900,000 tons annually, ending the emergency.

Today, the rubber market is a mix of 60% synthetic and 40% natural rubber.  The world mainly relies, once again, on the solitary Hevea rubber trees used by indigenes for ritual games and identified by a French scientific expedition in 1735, were scattered throughout the Brazilian and Peruvian rainforests.  The inheritors of those trees are lined up in neat rows in Thailand, Indonesia, Maylasia, China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India and harvested in the same way, the latex gathered in small cups below diagonal cuts in the tree bark.   

Demand for both the synthetic and natural rubber is up, driven by the growing economies in China – now the largest rubber consumer in the world – as well as India, Brazil, Maylaysia and Indonesia who are now buying passenger and commercial car tires at a furious rate.  According to the International Rubber Study Group, passenger tire consumption will double over the next decade from 800,000,000 tires a year to nearly 1.6 billion.  At the same time, agricultural strategies in some countries, like Maylasia, divert land to biofuel production at the expense of rubber tree farms.

While the Russian Dandelion research was closed out in 1947 with a lengthy report and the Guayule plant experiment in Salinas plowed under and the results classified for many years, these products still live productive lives in different parts of the country.

Fred Anderson, a retired Boeing engineer, started a company called Delta Plant Technologies that is now associated with Ohio State University.  The university is hybridizing new generations of dandelion plants and, using the 1947 report prepared by the Russian Dandelion Project, producing signficant product for the automotive industry.  The Ford Motor Company recently announced it will be testing components made with Russian Dandelion natural rubber. 

While the government decided to keep its Guayule research under wraps for commercial and political purposes, the professors at Manzanar did what professors do – publish.  As a result, the basics of Guayule growth and their successful processing techniques stayed in the public domain. 

An inheritor of the incarcerated Japanese American program now lives in Phoenix, a company called Yulex – a mash up of Guayule and latex -- is managing 4,000 acres of plants and focused on the medical market.  About ten percent of people are allergic to the latex found in standard rubber gloves and Guayule is free of the allergen.  Medical workers also like the fact Guayule gloves have a certain softness that makes them very comfortable.  Other medical uses of non-allergenic rubber products for use inside the body are pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration. 

Considering this story of America at its most muscular, I think of words I would like to substitute for "rubber."  "Oil" comes to mind.  What's yours?

The March to Dominance in the Pacific
Polling About Imprisoning Japanese Americans
1947 Report on the Russian Dandelion
Memorial to Robert Emerson after his death, in a plane crash, in 1959


  1. Your excellent piece on incarcerated Japanese citizens and their role in solving America's rubber crisis (we have one now but of a different nature?) hit home. While a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara back in the 60's my advisor's name was Tomatsu Shibutani. He spent his young adult life in one of the nesei camps and went on to become a splendid sociologist and college professor. I remember his telling us how the American government often raided the talent hidden away in the camps to use as they needed. One of these episodes, he explained, was the discovery of a new way to process rubber for the war effort. Who knew?

  2. Bob, Your information is a little out dated. Fred Anderson's company is no longer in business and is not associated with the TKS program at Ohio State. There is a company by the name of Kultevat out of Carlsbad, CA that is in the drivers position to commercialize Russian Dandelion in the USA. The founder and CEO of Kultevat is also the founder of Yulex , a venture-backed bio-materials company, which manufactures and markets non-allergenic natural rubber latex (NRL) for the medical and specialty consumer products market from Guayule.

  3. I am the son of one of the internees involved in the Manzanar Guayule Project. My Dad was Frank Akira Kageyama who worked on testing methods to shorten germination time for guayule seeds, grow discarded guayule stems as carefully prepared cuttings with Tomoichi "Green thumb" Hata, studied the karyotyping and hybridizing with Masuo Kodani, and continued to work with Professor Robert Emerson and Hugh Anderson after the War. He and I have given demonstrations of the Guayule rubber extraction process which takes less than 30 minutes (from stems to a bouncy rubber ball)! I have also used this demonstration in my Cellular Physiology Class at Cal Poly Pomona University where I am a Professor of Cellular Physiology, Anatomy and Neuroscience.

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