Can you explain what you can find in today’s tires? Do they still have natural rubber?
Today’s tires contain both natural and synthetic rubber. Natural rubber has long been used in tires, but there are many other ingredients that allow tires to provide grip, provide comfort, and even last longer. Initiatives such as smart tires that investigate all factors, not just materials and performance. It is important to consider the overall function of the tire: tire life, sustainability and manufacturing.
Can you outline some of those areas in more detail?
of course. For example, looking at materials, the proportion of biomass is increasing. In 2013, we used the world’s first experimental fossil fuel-free tire, and in 2019, we used cellulose nanofibers. Increase the use of sustainable raw materials at each stage.
This means more rapeseed flowers, pine tree oil, corn and more recycled content.
These are derived from agricultural products and industrial waste, and the final products are made using fermentation technology. Today, our tires are made from 44% sustainable raw materials, but in 2008 we announced mass production of tires made from 97% fossil resource-free materials. Based on these results, 100% sustainable tires can also be mass-produced. There are also small changes that add everything up, such as removing the plastic from the tire label.
We also want to be carbon-neutral by 2050 in terms of manufacturing elements. We would like to achieve this by making process changes such as trial use of hydrogen boilers at the Shiakaba Plant and then aiming for mass production. Throughout the world’s factories in 2023.
And will the tires change?
Yes. By 2029, we aim to be a proof-of-concept airless tire equipped with smart tire technology that can be produced by 2050. Due to advances in construction and materials, tires will last longer and will adapt to conditions such as weather and vehicle driving conditions. There is little driver involvement. To make the tires last longer, I started using Tomitake, the world’s fastest supercomputer. This is a great machine that can perform 442 trillion calculations per second.
How can supercomputers help to achieve that?
This is related to Performance Maintenance Technology (PST). PST prevents tire performance from deteriorating due to wear. The goal is to keep the tires as good as new for longer. To develop this technology, it is necessary to have an accurate understanding of the chemical changes that occur in the rubber at the molecular level throughout the life of the tire. You can then control these changes. Tomitake can accurately simulate not only the behavior of molecules but also actual chemical changes. Sumitomo was one of the first commercial users to access Fugaku, which has been used to model climate and COVID simulations. More work is currently being done in the simulation. Another interesting project is the microscope project with Ibaraki University. The structure formed by sulfur cross-linking, which gives rubber elasticity, was thought to be closely related to the strength of rubber and the change in rubber properties over time. Until now, it was a little mysterious.
To understand these interactions, a new particle beam microscope was developed by Ibaraki University in Japan. You can evaluate the actual rubber used in mass-produced tires, rather than the less typical machining test samples. By evaluating the tire itself, we can obtain image data for developing the internal structure of future tires that will exhibit excellent performance such as fuel efficiency and wear resistance.
What is your industry doing on a broader scale?
There are several initiatives we have signed up with other major tire and car manufacturers. In 2016, we participated in the Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative (SNR-i) established by the International Rubber Research Group (IRSG). He is also a founding member of the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR). The latter sets the world standard and its members include Ford, GM and BMW.
Along with the material, it is important to consider resource ownership.
In order to realize sustainable natural rubber, it is essential to understand and cooperate with the entire supply chain, including farmers, small-scale farmers (small-scale farmers), intermediate raw material distributors, and natural rubber processors.
Without us, we can’t really make a difference. We always consider and evaluate three important aspects of tire production. Sustainable use of raw materials, careful management of resources, and fuel savings. Under these principles, we analyze the manufacturing processes and components used to manufacture Falken tires, what works and what can be improved.
What other areas can you consider?
We all have a role to play, including consumers. Manufacturers are obliged to inform consumers that tires must be maintained no matter what. It was an interesting situation this week. My neighbor had deflated tires. I informed her and she replied, “Oh yes, someone else pointed it out to me a few days ago!” This wasn’t just a safety issue. The tires weren’t very efficient and the sidewalls could be damaged after a few days of driving. Fortunately, I saw the tires repaired yesterday and could provide more service. It emphasizes the importance of paying attention to tire pressure, load and road conditions.
Can you rely on consumers who expect much less maintenance these days?
Certainly it is difficult. I no longer check the oil level of my car. Again, we are looking at sensor technologies such as sensing cores that can detect and monitor tire press, load, wear and road conditions to maximize tire life. Such sensors are becoming more important in self-driving cars, and we are already experimenting with systems that identify tire problems and ship tire fitters to self-driving cars.