Depleting natural reserves, impact on human health and a changing climate are some of the key reasons forcing industries to innovate environmentally-friendly products and production processes. One key automotive component, which uses considerable amount of natural resources, is the tyre with about 75 % of it made from fossil-based raw materials. And this has been a subject of research for most tyre makers today. We recently spoke to Dominique Aimon, Vice-President, Technical & Scientific Communication, Michelin to understand the work being done by Michelin in order to lower the burden of tyres on nature.
To cut down its dependence on nature, Michelin follows a 4R strategy to manufacture tyres – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Renewable. In line with the idea of Reduce, Michelin is making constant efforts to develop lighter tyres, which last longer as well, said Aimon. Making these tyres a catalyst for higher fuel-efficiency, in tandem with the mentioned initiatives, leads to reduction in consumption of natural resources. Reuse covers the actions of repairing, re-grooving and recapping, all of which lead to longer use of tyres and lower consumption of rubber. Recycle and Renewable, as their name suggests ensure that materials aren't wasted, leading to a controlled usage of new materials.
The magnitude of raw material consumption by the global tyre industry is huge, clearly reflected by these spectacular numbers. Globally, the industry consumes about 32 mn tonnes of raw material, of which India presently accounts for about 1.8 mn tonnes only. In the long-term though, India's consumption will increase to about 4 %.
Looking at such constantly-increasing demand, it's imperative that each gram of rubber is used in the best way possible, noted Aimon. One such initiative is the Tire Recycling Project (TREC), which enables manufacture of new tyres from raw materials sourced from used tyres. Two methods, which achieve 100 % recycling of tyres, are TREC Regeneration and TREC Alcohol Recycling Program.
Another potential Michelin is looking at is of using bio-isoprene sourced from sugarcane, bringing about the question of shifting the load from one natural source to another. Aimon's response to it was that with the growing demand for tyres, the need for "natural rubber", i.e. polyisoprene-based elastomer will continue to grow in the long-term. It is hence necessary to find additional supply possibilities for it where the Hevea (type of rubber tree) can grow. A diversification is also necessary to find additional capacities in the long-term for bio-based polyisoprene. As a matter of fact, sugar-based polyisoprene will not replace Hevea-based polyisoprene in the future, but it will be an additional source for polyisoprene, he added.
In order to further improve its approach to green credentials, Michelin had recently announced the acquisition of a significant minority stake in SymbioFCell, a France-based developer of fuel-cell technology. Through this partnership, Michelin will be able to help the fuel-cell company in putting its plans in industrial production, while it stands to benefit from an increased role in developing sustainable mobility, Aimon said. Michelin itself is no stranger to the fuel-cell technology and has been actively working on it since a long time.
FUTURE OF TYRES
There are numerous experiments being done by tyre makers across the globe in pursuit of a better tyre on all accounts. Some of these involve usage of new and artificially-engineered materials in order to reduce the usage of natural materials. Unfortunately, most of these experiments are in their infant stages and will need a long-time to turn into production reality, if successful. It was hence crucial for us to understand from Aimon, what the future tyre would be made of.
He made it clear that he doesn't expect huge changes in the global composition of tyres over the next 20 or 30 years. This means that polyisoprene, synthetic rubbers based on butadiene, reinforcing elements, etc., will continue to be used in a similar manner. However, the materials used will certainly be different. For instance, the current elastomers for synthetic rubber would be replaced by functional elastomers and new reinforcing fillers will also arrive. In the end though, the global proportion of the elements is not going to change drastically, he added.
Text: Arpit Mahendra