Shortages of natural rubber could occur by 2010 if demand for the raw material continues at the same pace it has for the past 14 years, a top Goodyear executive said in a recent speech.
``Natural rubber consumption has increased from approximately 5 billion tons in 1990 to over 7 billion tons last year,'' said Joe Gingo, the tire maker's executive vice president of quality systems and chief technical officer. ``The forecast is for natural rubber demand to increase at this rate over the next 15 years.
``If demand continues at this high growth rate, (it) will exceed supply by the year 2010, even if every natural rubber tree is tapped.''
In the keynote address at the May 9-12 annual general meeting of the International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers in Coronado, Calif., Gingo outlined some of the issues synthetic rubber producers and tire makers will face during the next 15 years as the world's population grows and vehicle ownership and trucking increase.
Showing a chart of projected population growth in five key regions of the world, Gingo said four of five countries listed-China, India, the U.S. and Pakistan-each will grow by more than 100 million people in the next 45 years.
``So clearly population change is a fundamental cause-and-effect relationship we need to consider in our discussion of the future in our industry,'' he said.
Forget mass transit
Even with huge population growth, Gingo doesn't believe the world will embrace mass transit.
``It's not going to happen,'' he said. ``The reason is personal freedom. Whenever people are able, on a financial or practical basis, they generally prefer to come when they want, go when they want and go someplace else if they want.''
While the transportation of people and materials will continue to require tires, tires will evolve, he said, and will be designed to match the vehicle and ultimately customer requirements.
One trend is toward increased loads. Load capacity, along with fuel economy, will have a significant effect on the cost of delivering products to people, he said. He also foresees the need for even-quieter tires and shorter braking distances.
``Wider, lower aspect ratio tires are foreseen as a solution to the requirements for trucks and buses,'' he said. ``We also will see intelligent tire systems in trucks that will provide more information to the operator.''
Growth in global tire production is another trend that bears watching, according to Gingo. With production increasing so rapidly, raw materials supplies are critically low.
These shortages coupled with rising costs are forcing tire makers to explore alternative materials and polymers, both natural and petroleum based.
``The theme of future tire development will be conserving resources and using materials in the wisest manner possible,'' he said. ``Key performance enhancements will be in the areas of tire tread wear and fuel economy, without sacrificing wet traction.''
Natural rubber's place
Natural rubber, in particular, is of critical importance to tire manufacturers, Gingo said. It offers a unique combination of strength, durability, low-heat generation and adhesion that make it the polymer of choice in most tire components.
Ninety-nine percent of the world's NR comes from Hevea trees grown primarily in Southeast Asia. NR is used in nearly every rubber component in truck tires, making up 80 percent of overall polymer use, he said. In a typical passenger tire, NR makes up 27 percent of the total polymer used. Synthetic polymers are preferred in the tread area.
``Alternatives to natural rubber with better performance than today's options are needed in the immediate future, whether they are natural based or synthetic,'' Gingo said.
The guayule shrub and sunflower plants provide two alternatives for Hevea NR, he said. Scientists from Colorado State University and Ohio State University are working on genetically engineering these plants to produce latex of a higher quality and at much greater yields.
Gingo said that for a polymer to be interchangeable with NR, it must have a low glass transition temperature, rapid crystallization when strained, high green strength prior to vulcanization and hot tear strength.
``The closest natural rubber substitute we have today is synthetic polyisoprene,'' he said. ``It can crystallize when stretched, but not as rapidly as natural rubber.''
Nanotechnology, a technology dealing with tiny structures a billionth of a meter in size, is an area scientists are exploring in terms of tire development.
``There is a tremendous potential to reduce tire weight by replacing some high-density fillers with lower density organic nanoparticles,'' Gingo said.
The challenge will be to make these particles even smaller and more reinforcing in a cost-effective manner. In the future, despite the need for lighter weight tires and the need to conserve petroleum-based resources by using less rubber in a tire, customers will continue to demand increased performance, according to Gingo.
``The beauty of advance composites, is that weight reduction can be achieved with no loss in tire performance,'' he said.