About seven gallons of oil is required to make each of the roughly one billion tires produced annually, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association trade group. But the tire industry’s dependence on oil could drop dramatically in the next five years.

A new technology being developed in a research partnership between Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and California-based biotechnology company Genencor aims to eliminate the oil currently used to make isoprene, a key tire ingredient, by creating a more environmentally friendly alternative using plants like sugar cane, corn, or switchgrass.

“We’re developing a biological system for making isoprene—we call it BioIsoprene — using renewable raw materials, Richard J. LaDuca, Genencor’s Senior Director of Business Development told TechNewsDaily.  “The difference here is that we’re using the power of biotechnology to design a cell factory for chemical synthesis [of BioIsoprene].

How it works

Essentially, the technology uses a genetically modified microorganism to ferment the plant sugars in a way that creates the desired chemical.  Similar techniques have been attempted by others, but LaDuca said Genecor’s ability to harvest the chemical in the gas phase, rather than liquid, makes his company’s process more promising.

“We think that the gas phase nature of making BioIsoprene monomer is going to be the way to deliver the highest purity and the most efficient costs,” LaDuca said.

Other research is being done to produce synthetic and natural rubber, both using bacteria fermentation, and plants like the Russian dandelion, which produces natural rubber in its taproot. But LaDuca says complications with those techniques have thus-far kept them from being cost-effective.

While research is still being done to improve Genencor’s BioIsoprene process before it’s ready to be used in tires sold throughout the world, LeDuca says the final tires should last as long and perform the same as tires made with petroleum-based isoprene, and could eventually perform even better than the tires of today. The company estimates it will be years before we’ll see tires like these mass produced for the consumer market, but that doesn’t mean significant progress hasn’t already been made toward that goal.

“We’ve sent Goodyear a large volume of BioIsoprene that they’ve polymerized to make a lot of synthetic rubber, and we’ve made a prototype tire,” said LaDuca. “It’s a prototype just to demonstrate that we’re not dealing with tiny samples at this point; it’s to demonstrate that it’s a real-world process. “

Other benefits

The potential environmental benefits of BioIsoprene aside, there are other reasons Goodyear and other tire manufacturers are looking toward alternatives to petroleum-based products. LaDuca says a process for biologically engineering isoprene allows companies to escape dependence on the volatile nature of the oil market, giving them a product with a more stable price. A biologically based source of the chemical will also help alleviate the isoprene shortages which have occurred in the past due to environmental causes, like hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, according to LaDuca.

When this technology makes it to market, tires won’t be the only products getting greener.  Isoprene is a key ingredient in many other products, such as surgical gloves, other rubber products, and even the hot melt adhesives that are used to hold disposable diapers together. And while LaDuca is happy to have Goodyear on board as a strategic research partner, Genencor doesn’t plan on keeping BioIsoprene from the other companies who need it.

Genencor has retained worldwide exclusive commercial rights to BioIsoprene, and plans to build their own pilot and manufacturing plants to facilitate the process as the technology is perfected.

“We’ll build the plant, we’ll establish a long-term commercial supply agreement with Goodyear, we think they’ll be one of our most important customers,” said LaDuca, “but we’ll also be negotiating similar agreements with other companies that could be some of Goodyear’s competitors. We’ll be looking to supply BioIsoprene to anyone who has a need for this kind of material.”