While the coronavirus pandemic may have slowed some industries, the technological breakthroughs for the elastomer world in 2020 came at a fast clip.
From a new, cleaner way to produce carbon black, to new polymers and liquid crystal silicones for medical use, the ideas that blossomed this past year were numerous, showcasing innovative chemistries, interesting design ideas and the type of forward thinking that is intended to make the world more sustainable and circular.
Greener carbon black
When Monolith Materials was started in 2012, its plans were audacious—to pioneer new, cleaner technology in the production of carbon black, and to do so in the U.S. after decades of seeing the rubber additive produced in Southeast Asia and China.
After eight years and hundreds of millions of dollars in research and development costs, the company has perfected novel technology that ultimately will produce carbon black from natural gas rather than petroleum or crude oil. The production technique is getting attention, as the Mitsubishi Group's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. recently said it will invest in Monolith.
Monolith made its first run of the commoditized carbon black this fall, using this more sustainable method in Hallam, Neb.
Using natural gas as a feedstock, rather than petroleum, is a greener option because natural gas, through pyrolysis, breaks down into carbon and hydrogen, the latter of which can be re-purposed as an energy source.
Fixing the big toe—and more
Impressio Inc. of Aurora Colorado said in August that it had perfected the use of liquid crystal elastomers outside the body with a novel approach to energy-absorbent helmet liners, research that has landed the company on a short list to receive a $1 million prize from the NFL.
Now the small startup outside Denver will look to move its patented dissipative polymers inside the body, collaborating with Atlanta-based MedShape Inc., to create a joint replacement device for an arthritic condition that occurs in the big toe, hallux rigidus.
Impressio and MedShape recently received a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the research.
As well, a New York City-based company is using rubber materials to introduce a new orthotics product designed to support the foot comfort of active adults. Alliance Design & Development Group has pioneered orthotics with adjustable arch technology. ADDG specifically engineered SelectFlex insoles to help prevent the many ailments that can afflict those who work on their feet all day. The material used is a medical-grade polyethylene copolymer shell, a polyurethane copolymer high resistant flexible foam footbed, a thermoplastic elastomer polymer heel and a nylon antimicrobial fabric cover.
NextCar for a next generation
In late 1960s Rome, the green wave was the beginning of automated connectivity between infrastructure and transportation, a topic on which Giorgio Rizzoni, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at Ohio State University, has become an expert as director of automotive research at OSU and the school's Ford Motor Co. chair of ElectroMechanical Systems.
The green wave is a series of synchronized traffic lights, designed so a vehicle traveling at a certain speed meets all greens. This allows for higher traffic loads and reduced noise and energy, as less acceleration and braking is required.
Rizzoni and his team achieved a major step toward such an ecosystem with their NextCar project, assigned and funded by a division of the U.S. Department of Energy. The team entered the project with the goals of improving next-generation automated functions in passenger and commercial vehicles and improving a vehicle's fuel economy by at least 20 percent.
They developed models and constructed a virtual world with roads and varying degrees of traffic lights and congestion. They drove around the streets of Columbus, Ohio, collecting data using a Volkswagen Jetta equipped with a 48-volt, mild HEV powertrain, rapid prototyping hardware, a dynamic "skip fire" unit for optimization of cylinder firing and rolling horizon technology.
All about soybean oil
Akron-based Goodyear is pioneering new frontiers in both tire and non-tire elastomer technology with the use of one of the most ubiquitous and environmentally friendly materials in the world—soybean oil. According to Robert Woloszynek, chief engineer of polymer science for Goodyear, use of this vegetable byproduct over the last four years has transitioned from the research and development stage to the commercialized forefront, replacing petroleum-based oils in many of its premium tire brands.
Through compounding and other advancements, the world's third-largest tire maker has been able to meet the same performance thresholds—such as rolling resistance, wet and dry performance, and treadwear—found in tires with legacy naphthenic oils. Woloszynek spoke at the International Tire Exhibition & Conference in September.