There are about 1 billion tires made each year; each and every one of them uses 7 gallons of crude oil to produce. Although 7 billion gallons is just a small blip (0.5%) of the overall global annual use of crude oil (~1.3 trillion gallons), figuring out a way to make tires from something other than crude oil will, nonetheless, clearly help us in our goal to a sustainable transportation future.

At the American Chemical Society Meeting in San Francisco yesterday, Joseph McAuliffe, a scientist from biotech company Genencor, announced that he and his team have discovered a method to produce one of the key ingredients for tires from sugars derived from sugarcane, corn, corn cobs, switchgrass and/or other biomass.

This key ingredient, a chemical known as isoprene, is typically used to make synthetic rubber for tires. Collecting natural rubber from rubber producing plants is a time consuming and laborious process, making natural rubber very expensive and impractical to use for the production of tires. Interestingly, isoprene is also used in the production of many other products, including diapers, tampons, and surgical gloves. In all, the world currently uses about 1.7 billion pounds of isoprene each year.

“An intensive search has been underway for years for alternative sources of isoprene, in particular those from renewable resources such as biomass,” said McAuliffe in a statement. “One technical challenge has been the development of an efficient process for converting sugars into isoprene. One means by which we’re addressing this challenge is by using a fermentation process based on a modified bacterial strain that is designed to convert carbohydrate feedstocks into BioIsoprene™.”

Genencor and the Goodyear tire company have set up a partnership to bring the bioisoprene product to market within the next five years. Goodyear manufactures 200 million tires a year and is one of the world’s largest users of isoprene. It’s not clear how much of the 7 gallons per tire of crude oil the substitution of bioisoprene will offset. My guess is that each tire made using bioisoprene will still use a significant amount of crude oil. But, hey, it’s a start.

Source: EurekAlert!

Image Credit: Alan Smythee’s Flickr Photostream. Used under a Creative Commons License.