Goodyear is aiming to make better tires with silica developed in space

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The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company is aiming to make space-grade tires. At least that’s what the corporation hopes will happen after researchers at the International Space Station (ISS) receive its impending experiment. The study is designed to create silica in space.

According to a press release from the U.S. National Laboratory at ISS, Goodyear’s materials science payload will blast off as part of SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-18) mission. As such, the study is scheduled to launch via a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket on July 24.

Silica’s Tire-Enhancing Properties

Over the past decade, researchers have made advances in tire technology. For example, cutting three-dimensional self-locking “sipes” into tread blocks reportedly keeps them stiff, which allows “for good handling and substantially reducing treadwear” on tires.

Manufacturers also use silica in consumer tires to help enhance fuel efficiency and traction. Furthermore, using silica as a filler material in tread compounding has become an increasingly popular trend.

Engineers discovered that silica-enhanced compounds in tires tightens grip, keeps wear constant, and lowers rolling resistance. This combination creates an ideal situation.

A study on silica-reinforced natural rubber (NR) published in Advances in Materials Science and Engineering journal found that “under optimal conditions and formulation, silica can effectively reinforce NR as shown by mechanical and dynamic properties.”

Why do the Silica Space Study?

If silica works so great in tires, then why do the ISS silica study?

Researchers hope that the microgravity environment can help Goodyear develop unique silica structures that would further enhance tire performance. In the best scenario, the space-generated silica compound would assist in creating “safer, better tires.”

“When you precipitate chemicals to form silica in space, it makes a really different shape and structure than silica made on Earth,” said Derek Shuttleworth, a program manager in the External Science and Technology Programs (ESTP) at Goodyear in a Forbes interview.

In the study, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company is teaming with BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado Boulder. NASA serves as the Sponsoring Space Agency, and the National Laboratory is its Sponsoring Organization.

The rubber samples are in “self-contained bags with luer lock ports.” First, researchers will expose each sample to a tetraethoxysilane (TEOS) chemical for up to 120 hours. Next, they will extract the TEOS from each bag. Then, they will add a 10 percent n-butylamine solution for up to 48 hours.

Afterward, ISS crew members will remove the n-butylamine solution from the samples. Then, they’ll freeze the stripped-down samples for their return trip to Goodyear researchers on Earth. Upon receipt, the Ohio-based team will analyze the space-enhanced silica to see if it’s a suitable tire compound.

“The idea is that if we get our hands on this really different form of silica that we haven’t seen before on Earth, maybe it will perform better in areas that matter to tires: rolling resistance and wet grip,” said Shuttleworth, who is also credited as a co-investigator/collaborator on the ISS study. “That could then give us an insight into what we need to try and make here in normal gravity on Earth.”

More Potential Positive Impacts

According to NASA’s official study description, the Goodyear investigation “primarily evaluates novel silica morphologies that are not available on Earth using silica fillers formed with traditional synthesis techniques.”

Ultimately, crew members could uncover data in the microgravity environment that will reveal if the silica synthesis process can be improved. Furthermore, positive results could lead to new tire manufacturing properties here on Earth.

Overall, if better silica compounds produce better tire performance, marked improvements in fuel efficiency may occur. This benefit could easily translate to transportation cost savings, and perhaps, more importantly, to helping the environment.