NOT JUST RUBBER
The tire industry represents one of the largest industrial sectors and will still be so for many years to come. Let us see what the future has in store
Tires, tires and more tires, for all uses, and vehicles! From supermarket trolleys to 300-ton construction site dumpers, from super jets to go-karts, whether air filled, solid or else, are all an integral (and important) part of our industrial society.
In 2014 alone, this sector consumed something like 40 million metric tons of materials, the purchasing of which constituted 30% of the total budget of tire manufacturers. This mountain of materials had a total value of $ 70 billion and, despite the not exactly brilliant economic cycle, it is expected that the consumption of materials will increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3,1% to 47 million metric tons by 2021.
Despite these figures, the sector’s suppliers are likely going to face "challenging" times ahead, and for a variety of reasons. The urgent search for efficiency, for example, will force manufacturers to create increasingly lightweight tires, which will require less materials, not to mention the need to reduce costs through the optimization of materials. To this day, the growth of the tire market has been slightly higher than the global gross domestic product, fueled by population growth as well as the economic growth of BRIC countries. Nevertheless, this rise is expected to be less pronounced than expected in the near future because economies are slowing down at a global level with BRIC countries being the ones affected the most.
It is also worth mentioning that the weight of the materials used has increased slightly more than the total volume of tires, since higher incomes in many places have increased the demand for wider tires. If the global economy continues to slowdown, this trend could be reversed as the average size of tires will probably diminish.
Considering availability and costs, materials are a factor to be carefully considered by the tire industry, the dimensions of which make it one of the largest global consumers of certain types of materials. Furthermore, introducing new materials is anything but easy because they will have to be available in large quantities and worldwide, with a consistent level of quality.
It is hardly necessary to mention that most of these materials are used on tire compounds, indispensable in order to optimize performance and cost, with compounds that may also be very different from each other. Obviously, natural rubber is among the raw materials and one of the most important ones at that, and thanks to its resistance, it is widely used in tires destined to trucks and agricultural machines.
Its availability on the market would be even higher if prices were less volatile and supply more consistent. Natural rubber has always been more expensive than any artificial elastomer, therefore it is only understandable that the latter is used in most applications. Currently the market is experiencing a great price instability, a trend expected to continue for some time still.
Furthermore, environmental issues as well as sustainability also play a critical part and greatly affect the tire market as well as all the raw materials connected to it in a variety of aspects, ranging from the search for raw materials with low environmental impact to recycling and efficient ELT management.
The need to reduce emissions has also stimulated the creation of low rolling resistance tires.
More than rubber!
But tires are not only made of elastomers: an important role is played by "additives" such as carbon black, silica, fillers, silanes, and all those elements that prevent the harmful effects of ozone and oxidation.
Some materials will occupy an important role in the future of the industry, among these we find nanocomposites and new generation silica. Pneurama has already dealt with these technological breakthroughs for tires and it is easy to predict a growing importance of these materials in the near future and beyond.
Reductions in weight and rolling resistance can be quantified in the region of 20% and 30% respectively while performance and durability remain largely unaffected. In order to reduce weight, for example, belts will have to be made of different materials from conventional steel, while traditional fillers, such as carbon black and silica, will be used alongside nanocompounds that can greatly decrease rolling friction and the consequent loss of energy generated by internal friction as well. Elastomers, in fact, are not perfectly elastic: the energy accumulated during compression is not entirely returned when released, thus dissipating part of the energy in the form of heat.
Nano-fibers and new generation fillers will go a long way in reducing this internal friction thus decreasing a tire’s rolling friction. These new materials (Nanoprenes, to be used with silica, nanoclays, nano-fibers and carbon nanotubes, graphene, nanopolymers and others) will all become necessary components in tomorrow's tires. A tomorrow that is fast approaching, given that some of the aforementioned materials are now being already used commercially and many of the tires we are accustomed to see on our cars already contain some of them. After all 2020 is less than four years away, and the European dream of reducing by 20% the energy consumption in the EU must be fulfilled by then: and since tires may absorb up to 30% of that energy, it is easy to see what a great contribution new materials can make in achieving this result.