Refined synthetic rubber emerges for greener tires

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  • Image: LANXESS12-12 GreenTires.jpg
Image: Lanxess12-12Dr. Grub.jpg

Dr. Joachim Grub of synthetic rubber pioneer Lanxess says the company has invested in "de-bottlenecking" and increasing efficiency at its SSBR and Nd-PBR plants in Europe, Brazil, and the U.S.

Giving black rubber a “green” tinge is something that is increasingly occupying the minds of OEMs and suppliers as low rolling resistance tires become an essential part of energy-saving formulae.

But the chemistry involved is shifting. Dr. Joachim Grub, Head of Performance Butadiene Rubbers with German chemicals company and synthetic rubber pioneer Lanxess, warns: “It seems paradoxical, but ‘cheap’ tires made only of conventional types of rubber have become too expensive for cost and environmentally conscious consumers.”

The result is a need for auto manufacturers and tire companies to combine R&D targets with specialized synthetic rubber manufacturers. And styrene-butadiene rubber (SSBR) grades will be central to this.

This message is at the core of a report for Lanxess by consulting company Stratley Portfolio Performance Inc., which garnered the opinions of 32 tire manufacturers—and interviews with 70 experts in 20 countries—that together are responsible for some 84% of global tire sales.

Improved performance solution SSBR grades (generally for green tire tread compounds) together with neodymium-based performance butadiene rubber (Nd-PBR) (for tire tread and sidewalls) are seen as being essential to achieve required solutions.

In high-performance tires, SSBR, notably in combination with silica fillers, is considered by many of the tire companies polled to be an “absolute must,” states Lanxess. So much so that according to the study, SSBR will “significantly” overtake conventional emulsion-styrene-butadiene rubber (ESBR). 

The report stresses: “In five years’ time, twice as much SSBR will be used in car tires as ESBR." However, 85% of the experts surveyed see the supply situation as being "somewhat critical."

A very significant element in all this was the introduction in Europe in November of mandatory tire labelling. Gradings run from A through G based on fuel efficiency, wet grip, and rolling noise. The move to introduce labelling follows Japan and South Korea, with others, including the U.S., likely to embrace it. SSBR helps reduce rolling resistance and improve wet grip; Nd-PBR resists abrasion to help make tires safer and more durable.

Lanxess states that investments in tires that consume less energy because they are made from modern synthetic rubber pay off “increasingly quickly.”

Questions that were unanswered until the report was completed included to what extent increased attention to detail by the customer would affect the demand for SSBR, and were the available grades sufficient for enabling tires to achieve top marks in all relevant disciplines. Also, how suppliers in emerging markets would react to the changing situation.

Findings showed that some 85% of all tire companies questioned expect the new EU regulation to “significantly” impact their daily business. But most saw this as an opportunity.

With regard to SSBR high-performance elastomers, significance was placed not only on improved product performance but also processability and potential for further development.

“The supply of ever better green tires will be largely dependent on the provision of increasingly refined SSBR grades,” said Grub. “The data and assessments that we are presenting will not only help our customers adapt to the change in the market but are also valuable tools allowing us to adapt to the needs of our customers.”

Lanxess has SSBR production plants in Europe, Brazil, and the U.S. and is building an Nd-PBR facility in Singapore.

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