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Breakthrough: Renewable Tires from Trees and Grass
USAgNet - 02/10/2017

A team of researchers, led by the University of Minnesota, has invented a new technology to produce automobile tires from trees and grasses in a process that could shift the tire production industry toward using renewable resources found right in our backyards.

Conventional car tires are viewed as environmentally unfriendly because they are predominately made from fossil fuels. The car tires produced from biomass that includes trees and grasses would be identical to existing car tires with the same chemical makeup, color, shape, and performance.

The technology has been patented by the University of Minnesota and is available for licensing through the University of Minnesota Office of Technology Commercialization.

The new study is published by the American Chemical Society's ACS Catalysis, a leading journal in the chemical and catalysis sciences. Authors of the study, include researchers from the University of Minnesota, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the Center for Sustainable Polymers, a National Science Foundation-funded center at the University of Minnesota.

"Our team created a new chemical process to make isoprene, the key molecule in car tires, from natural products like trees, grasses, or corn," said Paul Dauenhauer, a University of Minnesota associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science and lead researcher of the study. "This research could have a major impact on the multi-billion dollar automobile tires industry."

"Collaboration was really the key to this research taking biomass all the way to isoprene," said Carol Bessel, the deputy director for the chemistry division at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds the Center for Sustainable Polymers. "This collaboration and synergy among researchers with different approaches and skills is really what we are trying to promote within the NSF Centers for Chemical Innovation Program."

Currently, isoprene is produced by thermally breaking apart molecules in petroleum that are similar to gasoline in a process called "cracking." The isoprene is then separated out of hundreds of products and purified. In the final step, the isoprene is reacted with itself into long chains to make a solid polymer that is the major component in car tires.

Biomass-derived isoprene has been a major initiative of tire companies for the past decade, with most of the effort focused on fermentation technology (similar to ethanol production). However, renewable isoprene has proven a difficult molecule to generate from microbes, and efforts to make it by an entirely biological process have not been successful.

Funded by NSF, researchers from the Center for Sustainable Polymers have focused on a new process that begins with sugars derived from biomass including grasses, trees and corn. They found that a three-step process is optimized when it is "hybridized," meaning it combines biological fermentation using microbes with conventional catalytic refining that is similar to petroleum refining technology.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With nearly 157,000 members, ACS is the world's largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

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