Belfast Telegraph

Rubber to lose out as lab-made synthetic tyres on the way

By Martin Brennan

Kicking a tyre on the sales lot and being told by the salesman "there is plenty of rubber left there" could soon become a thing of the past. In future, there may be little if any rubber in tyres. Laboratory-made synthetic tyres are on the way.

And steel and metal, the dominant material in cars since assembly started, are also being phased out as a host of chemical companies vie with Japanese and European manufacturers to use their new lightweight and cheaper, laboratory-produced nylon and plastic parts that will eliminate the plague of the motor industry - rust.

Synthetic 'rubber' for tyres that is lighter and more efficient than rubber from plantation stock, in terms of economy on the road, is being developed with the production of butadiene, a chemical used to make synthetic rubber, which is now more readily available and with cheaper production costs.

But it does not stop there. Michelin, the world's second-biggest tyre manufacturer, is looking at the possibility of making tyres using natural materials, such as sugarbeet, straw or wood.

It has set up a research programme. The project will cost over €52m.

The research is aimed at using organic matter that is often treated as waste. If successful, it could also help reduce the growing problem of disposing of used tyres which often end up as environmental hazard material when dumped in landfill sites.

On the car components front, the firm Asahi Kasei has developed Leona nylon and plastic that is gaining favour with manufacturers for lightweight car parts that surpass steel in terms of durability, and friction resistance.

The amount of plastics and polymer composites used in car parts is growing and has revolutionised the design of body exteriors from bumpers to door panels, replacing metals that are liable to dent, chip and corrode.

The lighter plastic allows for modular assembly with lower production costs and the lighter weight means lower fuel bills for owners.

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