University of Minnesota Renewable Tires Exemplify Industry 4.0 Standards

University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies | @UMNCTS

The response to the environmental and economic pressure of the pneumatic industry takes many forms. From the proposal of small, less polluting vehicles and requiring smaller tires, to investments and research in a wide variety of alternative engine technologies. A multidisciplinary group of researchers is exploring vehicle tires made from available biomass.

Tire production consumes large quantities of oil before they ever assist a vehicle in comsuming more fuel. Oil based rubber tires are difficult to recycle and take several years to decompose naturally. They aren’t going anywhere yet: 3 billion units are expected to be sold in 2019 alone.

In refineries, petroleum goes through the process of refinement. High temperature breaks petroleum into multiple different by-products and isoprene is one of them. Isoprene will then be separated and purified to obtain a polymer that’s the main component of rubber tires.

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The unavoidable shortage of fossil fuels is driving the tire industry to seek new bio-based and economically viable alternatives. Seeking for several years to reduce the environmental impact of tire production, manufacturers have focused on the synthesis of isoprene by fermentation of biomass using bacteria.

Instead of from oil, isoprene would be synthesized by genetically-modified bacteria. But the process proved to be difficult and has not materialized as a viable alternative.

Sustainable and Environment-Friendly Tires

In a sector still highly dependent on oil, the primary objective is to produce tires. Unfortunately, at times environmental responsibility takes a back seat.

Yet, it seems that that environmental concerns may finally be a priority. A team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota have announced a hybrid three-step process to produce isoprene from renewable biomass.

First, they perform a microbial fermentation of sugars, such as glucose derived from biomass (corn, grass, wood) to obtain itaconic acid. Then the itaconic acid reacts with hydrogen to methyl-THF. Finally, and this is where new innovations emerged, the dehydration of tetrahydrofuran to isoprene is carried out by a highly efficient catalyst called P-SPP, or Phosphorous Self-Pillared Pentasil. The result: 90% of methyl-THF is converted to isoprene.

At a catalytic efficiency as high as 90%, renewable isoprene would be economically viable.

This breakthrough couldn’t be made possible without collaboration and synergy of complementary skills of researchers from different academic backgrounds. Said Carol Bessel, the deputy director for the chemistry division at the NSF: “Collaboration was really the key to this research taking biomass all the way to isoprene.”

Researchers have published a paper on their work in the journal ACS Catalysis. The University of Minnesota Office of Technology Commercialization issued a patent on the technology and made it available for licensing.

The use of renewable biological sources and readily available materials show the potential for expansion of production not only tires or other products made of synthetic rubber, but also reduce farm subsidies. Corn farmers, for example, would find in the burgeoning industry of biomass tires another way to supplement their income.

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