BOULDER CITY, NV (Jan. 2, 2006) – Rubber has ruled the automotive tire industry for more than a century. That may be about to change, with new patented technologies that, for highway and agricultural tires, may lead to the replacement of traditional rubber with Amerityre Corp.’s Elastothane tires.
Like petroleum, rubber has a limited and decreasing supply that has led to the search for alternative materials. During World War II, where most rubber producing areas were under the control of the Japanese, the U.S. government pushed for and tire makers responded with all-synthetic rubber tires, in the event they were needed. Between then and today, other technologies to replace rubber with an improved tire at a lower production cost were tried, including advanced polymers and even nanotechnology-based materials, but each innovation fell short of reaching the mark.
Persistence pays dividends
As one of the companies involved earlier with advanced polymer-based tires, Amerityre had been able to make polyurethane tires for bicycles and smaller outdoor use wheels that did make it to market. In the years since then, the company turned its focus to developing automobile tires, knowing a number of earlier problems needed to be faced and overcome.
These included meltdown under braking, traction (especially on wet surfaces), hydroplaning and heat (which could limit top end driving speed), to name a few. Craig Hooks, sales and marketing manager for Amerityre explained that unlike other tire manufacturers, the company researched the problems and used its expertise to overcome each of them, culminating in the development of a tire made from polyurethane elastomers.
To look at a cross-section of a Elastothane tire, it resembles a traditional rubber tire in that there are plies, beads and belts. That is where the similarities end. There is no rubber present. The manufacturing process can be described as being more like more like making reinforced concrete than rubber tires.
Reinforcement materials such as fibers or wires are used for plies, belts and beads, and are suspended inside a mold. Liquid polyurethane – blended from the mixing of two chemicals, polyol and diisocyanate – is then poured around the reinforcements. Through a spinning process, the blend surrounds and encapsulates them in one monolithic piece. Every finished tire has the exact round shape of the mold and is identical to the others.
In April 2004, Amerytire’s regular-sized Elastothane ARCUS prototype tire passed the U.S. Department of Transport’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) Rule 109 tests for heat, endurance and aging. Hooks added, “We not only passed the test, we did so with flying colors.”
He also noted this was the first time a polyurethane tire had passed the rigorous testing. Compared to a control tire used – a run-flat tire used on Corvettes – the ARCUS ran an average of 56?F cooler than the rubber tire and had better rolling resistance. In addition, the ARCUS met the minimum bead push-off and plunger test load standards. Hooks noted, “We realize why we ran cooler than rubber, and we are in the process of finishing the technology and believe we can improve upon these results.”
The company then turned to the smaller-sized “donut” spare tires, as concern grew within NHTSA regarding fires following rear impacts in vehicles with a high pressure, pneumatic donut spare. Amerityre was approached by an automaker in January 2005 about making a zero-pressure donut spare. In April 2005, the company’s polyurethane donut spare passed the applicable FMVSS Regulation 129, the first time ever this had been done as well with any material – rubber or otherwise – says Hooks. And most recently, the company has developed and is currently testing retread truck tires.
Revolutions need reasons
Unlike earlier technologies that failed to capture a significant and lasting market share, the advent of these polyurethane tires not only matches or improves the benefits of rubber tires – shock absorbency, light weight, rolling resistance and traction – it offers unique advantages rubber tires can not, Hooks emphasized. “Our polyurethane elastomer tires have better physical characteristics than regular rubber tires.” Using a simplified manufacturing process, he says that Elastothane can be used for all types of tires, for all uses. The advantages span manufacturing efficiencies, environmental considerations and consumer benefits.
Consider lower capital equipment and energy costs as examples. Unlike rubber tire manufacturing, which uses mixers, calender machines, extruders and vulcanization processes, this technology eliminates the need for such equipment. Hooks also points out that polyurethanes are inert – baby pacifiers are made of the material. Polyurethanes don’t oxidize or react to other materials and won’t harden or crack like rubber over time. As well, the solid donut spare polyurethane tire can be integrated into a rear bumper, providing extra shock absorbency and freeing up some cargo space. Finally, the option for color to make a personal statement also exists.
Furthermore, energy cost savings with Elastothane tire manufacturing are considerable, and they rise geometrically should energy costs increase over time. If the energy needed for manufacturing cost $0.05 per KW, the cost would be $0.10 per Elastothane tire compared to $3.00 for each rubber tire. If energy costs rose to $0.10 per KW, the savings with Elastothane would be $5.80 per tire. If energy costs rose yet again to $0.15 per KW, the savings accelerate to $8.70 per tire. The potential for both manufacturer and consumer in current, let alone rising, costs of energy is clear.
Gaining traction in the marketplace
Despite the advantages in physical architecture and flexibility, getting established in the mainstream automotive tire industry can be an arduous journey. Rubber is still mainstream, despite this technology’s advantages. It does not yet have the comfort of being accepted by the industry and consumers. Finding a way to gain momentum in the marketplace is a slow process – one needing education and an ongoing dialogue with OEMs, both automaker and tire firms. Ever-increasing safety standards by federal regulators, environmental concerns and competitive forces within the tire and chemical industries are other factors to be aware of.
Earlier this month, Genmar Holdings Inc. signed an agreement to begin manufacturing boat trailer tires for recreational equipment using Amerityre’s technologies. Elastothane tires will be rolling on roads shortly. While the interest of one automaker in the polyurethane spare tire was previously noted, Hooks indicated that another automaker is running trials, and a third is considering the company’s full-size pneumatic ARCUS Run Flat tire. He also shared that a major tire manufacturer is in discussion with his company. When industry players start taking notice of new technology, it’s a leading indicator for the aftermarket to be aware of.
Competitive forces outside the automotive industry may also work into the equation for change. According to Hooks, the rubber tire industry has current usage of 45 billion pounds of rubber per year, while the urethane market (for all applications) currently employs 25 billion pounds of material per year. The opportunity to triple chemical sales by entering the tire business is a huge motivator. “Companies like Dow, DuPont and others would love to solve the problems in making a polyurethane tire, but haven’t. Amerityre has solved it, and has passed FMVSS standards,” says Hooks.
Finally, tougher federal tire standards are on the near horizon. In 2007, regulations are facing changes. Stronger FMVSS rules for rear impact collisions will be set. FMVSS Rule 109 faces replacement by an enhanced Rule 139, which will include two more stringent tests to regulate ozone and to raise the endurance standard, including a portion at a low tire pressure. An unnamed NHTSA spokesperson confirmed discussions were going on, but would not provide more detail, nor deny that tougher testing was coming.
For the tire landscape, polyurethane may have found its time and place at last.