Here’s Where Steel Tires Can Replace Rubber—and Help Save the Planet a Bit
MANJUNATH KIRANGetty Images
- A startup has revealed a new steel tire that works with hydraulics.
- Tires with metal are not road legal in many places except for use with snow and ice.
The idea sounds outlandish at first: a startup has invented a hydraulic, all-steel tire that replaces rubber tires. And while this wheel might tear up the road, that’s exactly what it’s not made for. Let’s look at the all-steel off-the-road (OTR) tire and consider what it can do.
First, think about the tires on your nearest bicycle, motorbike, or consumer vehicle. These are inflated rubber tires that wrap around metal wheels. Everything in our world is made to play nicely with air-filled rubber tires: smooth roads, smooth sidewalks, even many off-road bike paths. Just like the oil in your car, there are seasonal varieties of rubber tires designed to optimize conditions in different weather.
In some parts of the United States and the rest of the world, terrible winter weather demands something more than rugged rubber tread. Even winter-specific rubber tires grow rigid in the freezing cold weather and can lose their ability to flex, absorb, and grip the road. In these places, they sometimes legalize snow chains or studded snow tires. These technologies are designed to dig into ice and snow in a way rubber can’t, although the metal elements are likely to damage asphalt where there’s no snowpack.
This is where OTR tires come into play. These are the often gigantic tires on vehicles like farm and construction equipment. You may have seen them reused as playground equipment because they’re literally huge enough for people to crawl through. These tires have rugged big treads to cross over fields of chunky dirt, rocks, and more—while supporting many tons of equipment. That terrain has big wear-and-tear, and these tires may cost $75,000 each (!!!) for a lifetime of just six to nine months.
Into this market, a startup called Global Air Cylinder Wheels (GACW) has designed a steel tire. The air suspension wheel (ASW) is made of interlocking steel treads that are equipped with hydraulics inside the tire itself to help support or even replace the traditional suspension used with regular rubber tires. The ASW represents a move to turn the throwaway rubber tire into a permanent piece of equipment more like the machinery itself.
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GACW’s specific market is for off the road tires used with mining equipment. “Tires are either the #1 or #2 expense on mine sites,” GACW’s Harmen David van Kamp said by email. “Very dangerous and extremely polluting.” Tires can be recycled, but it takes a lot of energy, even moreso for these enormous specialty tires. Industry publication Benzinga said the mining OTR tire market is $30 billion annually and that most of these tires are not recycled. They also say tire explosions are common, which makes sense given the enormous vehicle weights and potentially sharp terrain. A steel tire with no air can’t explode.
Van Kamp says the tires make green sense for the mining OTR market for another reason: “The ASW will be a great fuel saver due to its reduced rolling resistance which in turn reduces carbon gases.” What is rolling resistance? It’s the effort required to keep your tire rolling, Bridgestone explains. Since rubber isn’t rigid, rubber tires “slush” a bit where they touch the ground, which increases rolling resistance. Think about how much harder it is to get your bike going when the tires are low on air.
It’s easy to see where GACW’s product could fit into the OTR mining market in particular, and some other markets for OTR tires. What’s less clear is how these steel tires can translate into consumer vehicles, which GACW says is one of their long term goals. Studded tires and snow chains are illegal in many places outside of very specific usage parameters. How will a steel tire grip the road without tearing it to shreds? Consumer tires are also already readily recycled.
The use case for consumer vehicles is a lot less clear, but the steel tire has potential to save mining companies a lot of money if it performs as promised.
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Published at Fri, 05 Nov 2021 18:47:00 +0000