Top Story: March 29, 2010

Green Rubber Meets the Road

CC by otherthings

Chemists out of Palo Alto announced a revolutionary new, green way of manufacturing tires at last week’s American Chemical Society Meeting here in San Francisco.

We often think of tires being made of rubber, but in fact, large tire manufacturers use isoprene to produce synthetic rubber for use in tires. And isoprene is generally made of crude oil—about seven gallons of it goes into each tire manufactured and approximately one billion tires are produced each year worldwide.  You do the math!  That’s a lot of crude…

A biotech company called Genencor, with offices in Palo Alto, has developed a more sustainable way to manufacture isoprene, using bacteria to convert biomass sugars into isoprene.

The process can use sugars derived from plant products such as sugar cane, corn, corn cobs, and switchgrass. According to an article in today’s New Scientist, the researchers “took gene sequences for an enzyme that allows vines and trees like kudzu and poplar to synthesise isoprene, and inserted them into strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli and a fungus. The genetically engineered micro-organisms were able to feed on (the) plant products…  to produce isoprene gas, which was then collected, condensed and purified.”

They’re currently trying to determine which combination of micro-organism and plant product works most effectively. Goodyear, the tire giant, is partnering on the project and hopes to have a tire from the BioIsoprene available to consumers within the next five years.

Unfortunately the BioIsoprene is not biodegradable. And, as we’ve seen before with products like biofuels, land to grow the feedstock does not come cheaply—think about the food vs fuel argument and deforestation.

A roll in the right direction, but not all the way there yet…

Creative Commons image by otherthings

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