Burning Rubber: The Role of Materials Science in Developing a Better Tire

Materials Studio

materials science
Specialty silica has revolutionized the rubber tire market thanks to the properties it gives tire treads. What other innovative traits can companies develop through the use of materials science?
Image source: Flickr CC user Emma Forsberg

Winter has arrived in the United States. For those of us in colder areas, the season is synonymous with one thing: snow. Despite its contribution to our fresh groundwater supply, the word itself brings dread for many. At best, it represents clearing sidewalks in icy temperatures. At worst, it means navigating roads under hazardous conditions. Most experienced drivers in these regions have at least one horror story involving driving through snow.

From shovels to cat litter, winter drivers can prepare themselves for treacherous conditions in various ways. They even change their driving habits. Allow more distance between cars to brake. Maintain slow speeds to avoid losing control on a patch of ice. In the end, however, these altered habits are the result of one thing: the ability of your car tires to grip road surfaces. While this concern is more pressing in winter, it still remains an important trait throughout the rest of the year. After all, rain can just be as treacherous as snow. How are companies using state of the art materials and technology to develop better tires for increased grip and, therefore, better safety?

The Rise of the Specialty Silica in the Rubber Market

Rubber tire design balances three traits: grip, rolling resistance and wear. Traditionally, softer tire compounds have better grip whereas harder tire compounds have lower rolling resistance and less wear.1 At least, that’s how it is used to be. Thanks to a small replacement in the filler material used to make tire compounds, tire engineering has taken a huge step forward.

Rather than the carbon black used previously, more tire compounds are making use of specialty silica as filler material. By incorporating silica into tire treads, the task of balancing the three traits of tire design becomes significantly easier. Silica has the advantage of lowering rolling resistance and enhancing grip simultaneously. Considering the fact that these traits were diametrically opposed in pre-silica tire compounds, that’s certainly an accomplishment!

The impact can’t be denied. Experts predict that the specialty silica market will grow 5.6% per year until 2018.2 Much of that demand is because of the fast-growing rubber market, of which the tire sector makes up a large portion. If anything, this area is sure to continue expansion beyond 2018. We’re seeing increased adoption of high-performance tire technology. Countries in Europe and Asia are passing labeling regulations, which are driving the need for silica use in tire treads. We might soon see a similar situation in the United States and South America. As a result, many opportunities exist for companies to exploit.

Materials Science Can Bring Innovation to the Rubber Tire Market

Just as materials science can transform America’s infrastructure, it too can further revolutionize tire design. Let’s take a closer look at specialty silica, for example. Estimates say that silica lowers rolling resistance by 20% and can improve braking on wet surfaces by up to 15%. What if you can alter the structures of various silica polymer compounds to adjust those percentages? Different tire designs have different purposes. Winter tires, for example, require a far better grip than all-season tires. After all, if someone lives in an area where switching to winter tires is justifiable, that implies they’ll be driving through more snow than someone living in a temperate region.

The experimentation need not end with silica compounds either. At their most basic level, tires are made of cross-linked polymers that provide durability. We’ve already seen the benefits of adding silica to the polymer compounds in rubber tires. Could adding other materials also have a positive effect? German scientists recently showed that a carbon/nitrogen compound produced a self-healing tire!3 Can you imagine what would happen if that addition took off the same way incorporating silica into filler material did? There’d be a lot of happy drivers on the road.

Materials science laboratories seeking to develop innovative polymer compounds need the right set of tools to support their efforts. With polymers, in particular, the ability to visualize structures is crucial. Visualization allows users to predict key properties of potential polymer structures. How well will they mix with other materials to form rubber compounds? Will they form durable cross-links? In the case of rubber tires, specifically, what effect does the structure have on grip, rolling resistance and wear? Thanks to this predictive simulation, R&D departments can screen a multitude of candidates before even the experimental assay stage.

BIOVIA Materials Studio is a complete modeling and simulation suite, designed to boost innovative research in materials science. Because of its modeling and simulation capabilities, the suite helps laboratories streamline their efforts and cut down on costs. Instead of eliminating candidates at the assay stage, scientists can identify promising polymer compounds at the design stage, thereby focusing their efforts on materials with the most desirable traits. Does your firm want a complete set of tools to boost its research into innovative compounds used in rubber products? Then please contact us today to learn more about BIOVIA Materials Studio.

  1. “Of Silica and Siping,” October 26, 2014, http://www.tirereview.com/silica-siping/
  2. “World Specialty Silicas Market,” August 11, 2014, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/world-specialty-silicas-market-270834871.html
  3. “New production process could lead to self-healing tires,” September 23, 2015, http://www.gizmag.com/self-healing-tires/39540/

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