With a natural rubber apocalypse looming just around the corner, petrochemical stakeholders can count on the tire market for an opportunity to continue hawking their synthetic substitutes. Or, can they? The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company is among the stakeholders seeking sustainable rubber substitutes, and they are zeroing in on soybean-based tires for buses. Wait, why buses?
All Rubber Tires Are Not Alike
Natural rubber occurs in hundreds of different plants, but to date only the Hevea brasiliensis tree, a native of Brazil, has lent itself to commercial cultivation. That kind of monopoly opens the industry to risks of spreadable, fungus-type blights including Microcyclus ulei, which has been fingered as the culprit behind the disruption of commercial rubber production in Brazil.
Much of the global rubber supply still comes from southeast Asia, but fears of a similar blight called Neofusicoccum ribis have begun to arise in Indonesia.
The widespread devastation of rubber tree plantations around the globe would be apocalyptic. Fortunately for the auto industry, though, synthetic versions arose by the beginning of the 20th century, and World War II further incentivized synthetic rubber R&D.
Synthetic rubber is now commonly used for passenger cars. Truck tires have resisted the crossover to synthetic rubber, due to its relatively poor abrasion behavior under typical trucking conditions. However, some recent advances in petrochemistry have opened up the potential for synthetics to push natural rubber out of the truck market, too.
The Search For Sustainable Rubber Substitutes
This is all well and good for petroleum stakeholders, who can look forward to a bigger share of the tire market as the supply of natural rubber shrinks and costs rise.
From a sustainable rubber point of view, though, petrochemicals are not a solution. Aside from providing more oxygen for the fossil energy industry, synthetic rubber tires contribute to microplastic pollution through everyday tire wear and tear.
The Obama administration ramped up the search for sustainable rubber substitutes, including the guayule plant, which the Department of Energy has been eyeballing as a domestic biofuel crop as well as a rubber tree substitute.
Bridgestone picked up the guayule ball and ran with it, leading to an announcement just last month regarding the company’s progress in the guayule rubber field. Auto racing fans can catch a glimpse of Bridgestone’s new, bright green “Firestone Firehawk” guayule race tires at the Indy 500 Pit Stop Challenge on May 27 (streaming live on Peacock at 2:30 p.m. ET), with the competition debut planned for the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville on August 6-7.
What Is Goodyear Up To Next?
World War II also saw interest in dandelions pick up as a source of sustainable rubber. The activity dropped off once the synthetic industry got up to speed, but in more recent years Ford and other stakeholders have been revisiting dandelions.
That includes Goodyear, which has been working with the US Air Force to introduce dandelion rubber for aircraft tires. The company has also been experimenting with soybean oil, and now it seems all that hard work has paid off.
Last Wednesday, Goodyear announced that its Metro Miler G152 and G652 tires are getting a soybean makeover that will cut the use of synthetic rubber without sacrificing performance.
The new tires replace about 11 liquid ounces of petroleum oil per tire with a soybean compound. That’s only about one can of beer’s worth of petroleum, but Goodyear North America emphasizes that the fleetwide savings can be significant.
According to the company, equipping a typical fleet of 1,600 city buses with its new soybean tires would cut about 20 barrels of oil out of the picture.
As for supply chain issues, Goodyear also notes that the soybean tire deploys surplus oil left over from food applications.
The Microplastic Problem
Increasing the use of sustainable rubber in the tire industry can help solve part of the tire wear and tear issue, though not all of it. Rubber of any kind is just one element in the complex structure of a vehicle tire, and there is an industry-wide movement afoot to assess the problem and remedy it on a holistic basis.
Goodyear has apparently taken the wear and tear project to heart. “The Metro Miler G152 and G652 also feature technology designed to resist sidewall damage, enhance toughness and provide long tread life,” the company explains.
“Reinforced shoulders and steel sidewalls help deliver long casing life, and the integrated sidewall wear indicators make it easier to spot wear due to excessive scuffing. These tires also include a multi-compound, scrub resistant tread that can stand up to the rigors of transit applications and extend tread life by resisting excessive wear, chunking, cracking and chipping,” they add.
Electric Cars Good, Alternative Transportation Better
Speaking of holistically, it was good of Goodyear to focus on mass transit bus fleets as its initial market for soybean tires. As much as we love electric cars over here at CleanTechnica, they do have a big old footprint no matter what comes out of their tailpipes. Tires are just one example of the outsized used of resources for cars compared to mass transit, bicycles, or, for that matter, walking shoes.
Aside from the mass transit angle, Goodyear is also focusing more attention on cycling through its Bike division. The company makes a particular effort to pitch to urban e-cyclists with its Transit Tour bicycle tire.
“The urban jungle is unforgiving,” the company warns. “You and your equipment must be tough enough to keep on rolling. Transit Tour is a fast-rolling urban tire combining confidence-inspiring handling with great durability.”
“Constructed to eBike approved standards with reflective side strips to enhance twilight and night visibility, the Transit Tour provides robust flat protection along with a comfortable ride for your next journey,” they add.
“The Transit Tour range of urban tires is all about reliability, security and safety. Your bike is your tool, come rain or shine, night or day… you will be out there in the wild, commuting home from work or heading out to meet friends,” they pile on some more.
Sweet! Now all we need is some protected bike lanes and we’re off to the races.
In all seriousness, though, when industry leaders like Goodyear get serious about promoting bike culture, that’s a big step up the sustainability ladder.
Ford is another automotive stakeholder branching out into the cycling field. Its interest seems to have waxed and waned, but last year our friends over at Cycling Weekly took note of a new derailleur system cooked up by the company, so stay tuned for more on that.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: Sustainable rubber tire with soybean oil compound (credit: Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company).
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