Renewable car tires produced from trees, grass

A team of researchers has invented a new technology to produce car tires from biomass like trees and grasses. The process could transform the tire production industry toward using renewable resources found in our own backyards.

Conventional car tires are made predominantly from fossil fuels, making them a heavy burden on our environment. Thanks to a technological breakthrough, it is now possible to produce car tires from biomass such as trees and grasses. According to the University of Minnesota, which led the study, the renewable tires would be identical to existing car tires in terms of chemical makeup, colour, shape – and perhaps most importantly – performance.

“Our team created a new chemical process to make isoprene, the key molecule in car tires, from natural products like trees, grasses, or corn,” said Paul Dauenhauer, an associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota. “This research could have a major impact on the multi-billion dollar automobile tires industry.”

Although biomass-derived isoprene has been a major initiative of tire companies for the past decade, it has proven a difficult molecule to generate from microbes and efforts to make it by an entirely biological process have not been successful.

The new process begins with sugars derived from biomass and uses a three-step process that combines biological fermentation using microbes with conventional catalytic refining that is similar to petroleum refining technology. The major breakthrough for the researchers came in the third step when they used a catalyst recently discovered at the University of Minnesota called P-SPP. It gave them a catalytic efficiency as high as 90 per cent with most of the catalytic product being isoprene.

According to Frank Bates, a polymer expert and professor at the University of Minnesota, the discovery goes far beyond the tire industry as it “could also impact many other technologically advanced rubber-based products”.

The university has now applied for a patent on the renewable rubber technology and plans to license the technology to companies interested in commercialising it.


Image credit: Brad Smith, flickr/Creative Commons

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