Road transport dominates Europe’s haulage business, with over 80 per cent of total freight in the region shipped by this means. The story is much the same in North America and in most world markets, and the pressure to remain competitive is high. Opportunities to reduce operating costs without compromising the standard of service are limited, and fuel economy is viewed as one of only a few factors that can be positively manipulated. Indeed, the September 2008 PricewaterhouseCoopers report “The Truck Industry’s Green Challenge: headwind or competitive edge?” identified fuel economy as the road transportation industry’s number one purchasing criteria. Yet an innovation widely embraced by manufacturers of passenger car tyres, the use of silica in the compound to facilitate lower rolling resistance, has remained beyond the commercial sector’s reach – until now. In November 2008, two established providers of solutions for the tyre industry, Rhodia and Dow Corning, announced the formation of an alliance to address this problem. The result of their joint work is already on the road.
“PCR tyres largely utilise synthetic rubber; it is easy to mix silica and synthetic rubber using a silane, and this has been done successfully for some time,” explains Peter Browning, Rhodia’s global business director – Silica, when speaking with Tyres & Accessories. “Truck tyres, on the other hand, are much more reliant upon natural rubber in their construction, and existing silane technology does not work when paired with natural rubber.”
This absence of a suitable silica/silane product for use with natural rubber (which accounts for around 60 per cent of total rubber usage in tyres) has occurred in spite of much work in this area. As Dr. Thierry Materne, Dow Corning’s global industry director – Coating, Reinforced Plastics & Tyre notes, the idea of a silica/silane for use with natural rubber is years old, but nobody has previously been able to formulate a product that reacted appropriately. Meeting with success required a change of direction for the Rhodia/Dow Corning team. “In what we are introducing now, we are bringing completely new chemistry out of the box,” says Dr. Materne.
Despite the passage of only a few months since the signing of the agreement between Rhodia and Dow Corning, by the time the two companies jointly exhibited at the Tire Technology Expo (held in Hamburg, Germany between February 17 and 19, 2009) they were ready to announce the results of the first stage of their alliance. “Prototypes are now available,” reveals Mr. Browning. “We are trialling them with two customers at the moment. Test tyres have been fitted to vehicles and are being trialled on European roads. Now, over the next couple of months, we plan what we jokingly call our ‘silica/silane world tour’. We will be visiting Japan, the US and Europe and meeting up with potential customers.”
Dr. Materne adds: “through various contacts, we have already been able to gauge interest, and have received a very positive response.” Such a response is hardly surprising, given the potential fuel savings at stake, not to mention environmental benefits. Looking at the passenger car tyre sector as a point of reference (Rhodia estimates that, in 2007, 65 per cent of tyres produced in Europe were reinforced with high performance silica), Thierry Materne states “regarding fuel savings, experience from PCR tyres show on average that reductions in the area of five per cent can be achieved. We could aim towards a similar goal for trucks, and five per cent would be something measurable, and attractive, for fleets.” In the passenger car segment CO2 emission reductions in the area of 100 million tonnes have already achieved, says Peter Browning. Therefore the use of silica/silane tyres by the 60 million or so trucks on the road would not be insignificant. “In terms of emissions from natural rubber tyres, the reductions will be substantial. There is a real need to reduce emissions, and this is also a legislative focus. We can greatly contribute to reducing emissions,” Browning comments.
The environmental advantages of the silica/silane technology extend beyond on-road fuel savings, Dr. Materne explains: “From a green perspective, in some of the processes we are using in the production of our current technology for passenger tyres, Dow Corning has put environmentally friendly processes in place. Therefore, not only will the products be greener for the end user – the amount of energy expended during production as well as the overall process ecological footprint have been reduced.”
In regards to its application, while the truck tyre segment stands to be the technology’s major beneficiary, it is of course suitable for all products employing natural rubber, including aircraft and earthmover tyres, along with some passenger car tyres such as winter/ice products.
This compound with its high 60 to 80 part per hundred content ratio is totally suitable for existing tyre design and construction techniques, Mr. Browning adds. Should manufacturers wish to, they could theoretically use the new silica/silane in their existing product ranges tomorrow. What is exciting about the jointly developed compound is that it places a new tool for the design of treads at the manufacturers’ disposal. Should they decide to pursue new design opportunities, they now have ability to do so with a product that works.
The short timeframe between the announcement of an alliance between Dow Corning and Rhodia and the on-road testing of the silica/silane product is impressive, but it should hardly come as a surprise. As Dr. Materne notes, “prior to our alliance, both companies already were active in the business. We wanted to realise synergies and thus joined forces. We have teams from both companies dedicated to the project. The two companies working together can spark new ideas, speed up the development process and further leverage resources. Together we can achieve more innovation, and faster.”
The silica aspects of the project are produced and marketed by Rhodia, while the silane components are manufactured and sold by Dow Corning. Application work on the project is being carried out in Lyon and in Belgium, synthesis in UK and manufacturing in North America. And while the tyre industry is awash with bad news at the moment, Peter Browning reports that the financial crisis has delivered a silver lining for the development team. “The economic downturn has made our life easier,” he says. “So-called ‘weaker’ projects have been stopped and a focus has been made upon the most promising projects, such as this one. Also, customers now have for the first time in years spare capacity, so they can more aggressively focus on development.”
Thierry Materne adds: “The way to get out of a situation like the one at present is to look for new opportunities, not to stick to old ways. What we are offering manufacturers may turn out to be such an opportunity. Both companies are committed to support this project; we have a lot of energy. There is a lot of expectation from our customers – not just about the technology. We have recently been approached by two well respected customers, and from them we realise that the release of our product is being seen as a significant event.”
The importance of a product with the potential to reduce fleet and other operator fuel costs by five per cent cannot be overestimated, and the Rhodia/Dow Corning development team is making sure the benefit to its future customers is maximised by involving them in the development process.
“This is not just about developing technology, we are also connecting with customers,” Dr. Materne elaborates. “Prototypes are being evaluated with individual customers, so they are partners with us in implementing the technology. We don’t just want to present them with a ready-made product. It is important to get them involved with the implementation and final development of the product, as natural rubber is used in tyres made for a wide range of segments, and we can offer different things for different segments. For example, in North America the focus is on long haul applications where fuel consumption is a key priority, while in Japan the urban delivery application is of great importance, and wear is perhaps the number one consideration. Talking with individual customers helps us develop what they want.”