ATLANTA—Lewis Tunnicliffe started working with rubber more than a decade ago when he was a graduate student in London, but nothing provided real-world experience with the industry's most famous product quite like moving to Atlanta in 2016.
See, in central London, he got around without a car.
In Atlanta, that's like trying to sail without a boat.
"I would get everywhere (in London) through walking or taking public transport," said Tunnicliffe, the product design and development manager at Birla Carbon. "So one of the big things was adjusting to a 100 percent car-based lifestyle."
At Birla Carbon, he's at the forefront of making that car-based lifestyle more sustainable. Tunnicliffe works in global product development and R&D, evaluating new materials and processes for tire and mechanical rubber goods.
"I work in the raw material supply chain, and that's an interesting place to be," he said. "For us, we really have to innovate and come up with new solutions to provide the industry.
"That's a challenge, but it's also a really exciting opportunity as a scientist."
Tunnicliffe got his bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of Durham in 2005 and spent nearly three years working as a research scientist at Sibelco Europe, which deals in the sand and mineral industry. He went back to school to get his master's degree and his Ph.D at Queen Mary University of London before getting hired at Birla Carbon in February of 2016.
"Going back into academia, I knew I wanted to do something in polymers, not necessarily rubbers, but polymer materials," he said. "The university I went to had a strong thermoplastic group and also had a strong rubber group and I ended up joining the rubber research group."
At that point, he didn't know if he would make a career out of rubber, but like so many in the industry, the more he studied it, the more interested he became.
"The thing that I've found out about rubber is that it's been around so long and it seems so ubiquitous, but there's still a lot of scientific challenges left to explore and so many different areas in the science," he said. "One thing that struck me (during his graduate studies) was you end up working with a lot of different types of people when you work in technology on rubber. It's not just a bunch of chemists. You end up working with physicists, mechanical engineers, hard-core chemists and everyone in between as well. It's really kind of a cross-functional team you end up working in to progress your knowledge in rubber science and that's one of the things that appealed to me."
The other thing that appealed to him was that rubber wasn't just scientifically interesting, it was immediately applicable on a day-to-day basis.
"You're driving to work in the morning and you're relying on the physics of the rubber compounds in your tire to keep you safe and to get you from A to B," he said. "Everything you end up working on in rubber has some really profound final applications. I really like that it's an interesting subject from a scientific perspective but there's also that strong link to an end-use application."
Tunnicliffe and his wife live north of Atlanta, so they spend a lot of their free time outside, exploring the foothills of the Appalachian mountains or kayaking in northern Georgia. He hasn't adjusted to everything about America—he misses his family, he misses English beer and he's mostly switched over to coffee "because it's tough to get a decent cup of tea here," he said—but he's made a lot of good connections, both socially and in the industry.
The pandemic has disrupted that a bit, but he's hoping an end is in sight.
"My Ph.D topic was on rubber materials, so it may be a bit of misnomer to say I've been in the rubber field for five years," he said. "I've been in the rubber industry for five years, but I've been working in rubber materials for 10. And during that time, I've been to various conferences and see familiar faces and they become your friends and your colleagues.
"It's interesting when you move from academia to industry to see just how many people you end up working with and collaborating with that you've known previously. It is a small world when it comes to rubber and that's one of the things that's nice. You spend a lot of time working with these people across companies and different universities. It's been a real pleasure."