A team of researchers, led by the University of Minnesota, has invented a new technology to produce automobile tires from trees and grasses. The new process could shift the tire production industry toward using renewable resources found right in our backyards.
Conventional car tires are viewed as environmentally unfriendly because they are predominately made from fossil fuels. Using the new process, tires produced from biomass that includes trees and grasses would be identical to existing car tires, with the same chemical makeup, color, shape, and performance.
The team included researchers from the U of M’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science (CEMS) and the Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP) and from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. CSP is funded by the National Science Foundation.
“Our team created a new chemical process to make isoprene, the key molecule in car tires, from natural products like trees, grasses, or corn,” says Paul Dauenhauer, CEMS associate professor and lead researcher of the study. “This research could have a major impact on the multi-billion dollar automobile tires industry.”
Currently, isoprene is produced by thermally breaking apart molecules in petroleum that are similar to gasoline in a process called “cracking.” The isoprene is then separated out of hundreds of products and purified. In the final step, the isoprene is reacted with itself into long chains to make a solid polymer that is the major component in car tires.
Biomass-derived isoprene has been a major initiative of tire companies for the past decade, with most of the effort focused on fermentation technology (similar to ethanol production). However, renewable isoprene has proven a difficult molecule to generate from microbes, and efforts to make it by an entirely biological process have not been successful.
CSP researchers have focused on a new process that begins with sugars derived from biomass, including grasses, trees, and corn. They found that a three-step process is optimized when it is “hybridized,” meaning it combines biological fermentation using microbes with conventional catalytic refining that is similar to petroleum refining technology.
“Economically bio-sourced isoprene has the potential to expand domestic production of car tires by using renewable, readily available resources instead of fossil fuels,” says Frank Bates, a world-renowned polymer expert and U of M Regents professor of chemical engineering and materials science. “This discovery could also impact many other technologically advanced rubber-based products.”
The U of M, through its Office for Technology Commercialization, has applied for a patent on the renewable rubber technology and plans to license it to interested companies.