Bridgestone Corporation officially broke ground last week on a biorubber process research center — a facility expected to investigate ways to better produce rubber from a native southwestern plant.
“We’re interested in bringing companies, such as Bridgestone, who have an international reputation for quality, not only in the products that they build, but the way they conduct their business,” said Mesa Mayor Scott Smith at the groundbreaking event on Thursday, May 16.
The undeveloped area in southeast Mesa is growing and ripe for future commercial development, Smith said.
“We’re a big place, but we still have room to grow, too,” he said. “This facility is in one of those areas where we will see incredible growth. Not only growth in people, because that’s not what we’re interested in now, but in business.”
Across the road from the future research center is the Fujifilm Mesa facility, while the newly-completed First Solar factory sits a few miles north.
The Bridgestone research center will be used to research innovative ways to harvest the guayule plant for rubber, something that has not been successfully done on a large-scale commercial size, said Bill Niaura, Bridgestone America’s director of new business development.
“To see an idea take shape and then come to life, first as an experiment in a laboratory, then blueprints on paper and now as an active construction site, has been a very gratifying experience,” Niaura said. “The facilities that will open here represents years of planning, hard work and with a broader perspective represents efforts to promote meaningful innovations in our industry.”
The research center will be more than advance for industry innovations, said Gary Garfield, CEO and president of Bridgestone Americas, Inc.
“It will also bring high-wage, scientific jobs to this community,” said Garfield. “This is not a short term proposition. We’re trying to do something here that has never really ever been done successfully.”
At completion, the center will have a staff of 40 researchers and technicians. The first rubber samples should be ready by mid-2015.
The site, which covers 10 acres, will include an 8,400-square-foot office and lab building, a four-platform, 3,500-square-foot shrub prep building and a 3,100-square-foot mechanical and electrical building. Scientists at the site will process the plants for natural rubber, resin and other biomass used for energy production or other products.
Guayule, a leafy plant found in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, produces natural rubber in its bark and roots, however it has never been as commercially successful as traditional sources of rubber or synthetic rubber.
“Synthetic alternatives lack attributes that only Mother Nature seems able to provide,” Niaura said.
Only natural rubber has 100 percent uniform chemical chains, he said. At it’s best, synthetic rubber can be in the high 90 percent, but because of the non-uniform can be less elasticity and durability.
Bridgestone has also begun construction on an agricultural facility in Eloy, Ariz., to grow the guayule for the Mesa research center.
The Hevea tree used primarily to produce the rubber in tires cannot be grown in the United States and with ever-changing availability from the Asian countries that grow it and the fluctuating prices for petroleum, which synthetic rubber is made from.
“Rubber trees can only grow in certain parts of the world and they don’t grow in the United States,” Garfield said. “We need an alternative source of rubber.”
“To be a better supplier for everyone who uses our tires, we need to make sure we can get the rubber when we need it,” Garfield said. “And we live in a changing world and all kind of things can happen.”
Moreover, a new source of rubber means lower prices for consumers while also being environmentally responsible, he said.
“We very much believe that we are stewards of this world that we inhabit,” Garfield said. “And we believe that if we are successful in using guayule as a natural source of rubber, it will reduce overall our carbon footprint.”
Balfour Beatty Construction, based in Scottsdale, will build the facility.
Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, LLC, a Bridgestone America subsidiary, is developing the project in collaboration with Bridgestone Corporation. Bridgestone Corporation is providing the funding and strategic insights for the project, while the Bridgestone Americas team will be responsible for operating the process research facility.
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