A team of researchers, led by the University of Minnesota, invents a new technology to produce automobile tires from trees and grasses in a process that could shift the tire production industry toward using easily available, renewable resources.
Conventional car tires are viewed as environmentally unfriendly because they are predominately made from fossil fuels. The car tires produced from biomass that includes trees and grasses would reportedly be identical to existing car tires with the same chemical makeup, color, shape and performance. The University of Minnesota, through its Office for Technology Commercialization, has applied for a patent on the renewable rubber technology and plans to license the technology to companies interested in commercializing it.
The new study is published by the American Chemical Society’s ACS Catalysis journal. Authors of the study include researchers from the University of Minnesota, University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Center for Sustainable Polymers, a National Science Foundation-funded center at the University of Minnesota.
“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, a University of Minnesota associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science and lead researcher of the study. “This research could have a major impact on the multi-billion dollar automobile tires industry.”
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), according to the University. 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. Funded by NSF, researchers from the Center for Sustainable Polymers have focused on a new process that begins with sugars derived from biomass. 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 polymer expert and University of Minnesota Regents Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. “This discovery could also impact many other technologically advanced rubber-based products.”
For more information on the new technology, visit: www.twin-cities.umn.edu