LYON, France—Rhodia S.A.´s Rhodia Silcea business has introduced a new generation of high surface-area silicas for energy-saving tires that it said will push silica technology forward.
The firm´s Zeosil Premium silica material is based on the association of a specific high-surface area and a new morphology, combining the silica aggregate and the element particles of which it is composed, according to the company. The silica´s structure allows for a good dispersibility, improving the mixing of the silica into the rubber and boosting productivity for the tire manufacturer. Rhodia also said it provides "exceptional tread reinforcement for increased tire durability."
Zeosil Premium´s new morphology also provides greater interaction with the polymer, giving a good balance of reinforcing properties and viscoelasticity.
To this point, Rhodia said its high-performance silicas have helped boost wet grip performance by 5-10 percent while reducing rolling resistance by 25 percent. That has brought reduction in fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions of about 5 percent.
Zeosil Premium will reduce rolling resistance by nearly another 10 percent and further boost fuel savings without hurting other tire performance properties, said Rhodia Silcea President Eric Noyrez. "We could do much better in rolling resistance, but you need to keep everything else as good as it is in terms of performance," he said.
Rhodia Silcea has been developing the new material in conjunction with an unnamed tire maker, so the silica is "not coming out of a lab, it´s coming out of an industrial facility," according to Noyrez.
He noted that while this is the first commercialization of Zeosil Premium-it will be initially offered in one grade with other grades to follow-it will be some time before the silica will begin appearing in tires. The process takes roughly 18-24 months to gain market acceptance, conduct testing and have the material used in tires and for the tires to appear on vehicles.
While that may seem to be a long time for payback, Noyrez said tire manufacturers are extremely safety conscious.
That´s also one reason there aren´t a lot of global players in the silica market, he said. "You need to prepare yourself before you get payback. There is no compromise in safety. There are no shortcuts. That´s just the process."
N.A. following Europe
Silica technology in tires dates back to 1991, with Europe the first target market and all major tire makers producing some type of "green" tire. The first uses were as original equipment tires, and movement to the replacement market followed roughly five years later.
In Europe, the OE tire market has virtually all tires made with silica technology, compared with about 70 percent in the aftermarket.
Noyrez expects the North American tire market to follow a similar path, although the recent spikes in gasoline prices and other factors such as labeling laws may speed up the process somewhat. He said almost all new cars in the continent are equipped with tires made with silica, while a range of green tires make up about a third of the replacement market.
"Consumer behavior is the same everywhere," Noyrez said. First, the buyer will notice the difference that something is better. Then they will make the choice of whether they are willing to pay for the better performance. "They won´t ask for a ´silica tire.´ They may say ´I want a green tire.´"
But with the price of replacement tires so wide-ranging, he said that factors other than fuel efficiency play a key role in the tire-buying process.
"At the end of the day, if buying a tire that´s more expensive, consumers want to know that it wears well, is long lasting and has good grip," he said. "The last is to save fuel."
Rhodia Silcea has seen annual growth in its silica business of more than 10 percent over the past five years. That ranges from about 7 percent in the more mature European market to 12-13 percent in North America and 20 percent in Asia, according to Noyrez.
It operates seven precipitated silica plants worldwide, with U.S. production located just north of Joliette, Ill. That plant completed an expansion last year, he said.
The firm also recently broke ground on a second plant in Qingdao, China, with that factory scheduled to be operational by July 2009.