Aftermarket Features & Interviews

Dandelions get to the root of rubber problems for Continental Tyres

05 January 2015 #Aftermarket #Features & Interviews

The humble dandelion looks set to play a key role in the future development of tyres, as its roots are a source of high-quality natural rubber, according to Continental Tyres.

David O’Donnell, Head of Global Research and Development for Passenger Car and Light Truck Tyres, says the plant provides a viable alternative to rubber trees, which have to be grown in sub-tropical climates, where their cultivation has led to the creation of unhealthy monocultures and the destruction of natural forests. They are also vulnerable to disease, which reduces the yield of latex that tyre makers need.

By contrast, dandelions can grow anywhere – which should ensure stability of latex supply – and that includes on marginal land and next-door to European tyre factories. As a consequence they will not steal acreages that could otherwise be used to grow food crops.

“Natural rubber makes up about 40% of a commercial vehicle tyre’s content,” says O’Donnell. “Synthetic rubber is available but does not work in the same way and the process used to produce it relies heavily on oil. Dandelions are a renewable resource. Oil is not.”

Continental is thinking in particular about the Russian dandelion. Fortunately, given the current political climate it is grown widely outside Russia and Continental has been working with Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology to cultivate robust, high-yield strains.

The aim is a yield of approximately 1-1.5 tonnes of natural rubber per hectare; roughly the output of a traditional rubber plantation, says O’Donnell. “Dandelion rubber is chemically identical to the product of the rubber tree,” adds Dr Andreas Topp, Continental’s Head of Materials and Process Development.

Continental tyres containing dandelion rubber under the Taraxagum trademark are already on test – the name is derived from the dandelion’s botanical description – and look set to go into volume production within the next five to 10 years, says O’Donnell.

Employing dandelions to produce latex is not an entirely novel idea. They were used during World War II, when there was a risk that more conventional sources of supply would be interrupted.

Continental believes these supply sources will be placed under growing pressure over the next few years as global demand for natural rubber rises. Being able to tap into an alternative to the rubber tree therefore makes sense and should aid price stability.

Meanwhile UK demand for replacement commercial vehicle tyres is rising, with 2014 projected to see an increase of around 8% on 2013’s level, says Continental’s UK Managing Director, David Smith.

As far as sizes are concerned he predicts a gradual shift away from 295/80 R22.5 in favour of 315/70 R22.5, thanks to the latter’s greater ability to cope with the additional weight Euro-6 imposes on steer axles. UK Sales and Marketing Director of Commercial Tyres, Arthur Gregg, is concerned, however, that some operators may not be aware of this change, and will end up mistakenly fitting the former as a replacement when they should be fitting the latter.

Heavy truck registrations fell in November according to SMMT figures as recently introduced Type Approval legislation made its presence felt.

Tumbling oil prices are unlikely to see an accompanying drop in the price of tyres in 2015, says Gregg, despite their high oil content.

“What you are more likely to see instead is price stability,” he predicts. “Tyre manufacturers are well aware of the volatility of the oil market, and what we don’t want to do is cut prices in February only to end up putting them up in March if the cost of oil starts going up again.”

Even at today’s prices tyres do not come cheap so operators need to get as much work out of them as possible: and that means monitoring pressures effectively.

Continental’s ContiPressureCheck on-board pressure monitoring system has recently been updated with Automatic Trailer Learning, which enables a tractor unit to identify and monitor all the tyres on a trailer each time a trailer is changed.

“In 2015 our focus will be on working with telematics companies to integrate our tyre pressure information into their systems,” adds Smith.

This will enable hauliers to spot tyre problems in real-time while a truck is on the road. Depending on the seriousness of the problem they can make arrangements to have it dealt with the moment the driver returns to base or instruct a tyre fitter to meet the truck at a convenient and safe location to make on-the-spot repairs before the tyre fails.

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