Car tires are disastrous for the environment. This startup wants to be a driving force in solving the problem

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“For years we’ve focused so much on tailpipe emissions, but we’re starting to look at other sources of pollution,” says Siobhan Anderson, chief science officer and co-founder of The Tire Collective. “We all know that tires wear out, but no one ever really wonders where that material goes – and it ends up in the air and in the water.”

Where the rubber meets the road

The Tire Collective began as a student project in 2020, while the four founders pursued masters degrees in Innovation Design Engineering, run jointly by Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art. With a background in biology, Anderson says she’s always had an interest in the environment and microplastics, and that’s how she discovered the little-known problem of tire dust.

The Tire Collective’s wheel-mounted device collects tiny particles of tire dust on electrostatically charged copper plates. Credit: The Tire Collective

Non-exhaust emissions, which include tire, brake and road surface wear, account for 90% of all vehicle particulate emissions. Microplastics in tire dust contribute to dangerous PM2.5 pollution – particles so small they can be inhaled and cause respiratory health problems.

To visualize the scale of the problem, the group calculated the amount of tire dust that a single London bus produces each day and found that it was equivalent to the size of a grapefruit.

Next, the team had to find a way to keep the tire pieces from flying down the road and into the air.

“We tried a bunch of different methods to collect it, from vacuuming to using sticky materials,” Anderson says. She says they had a “lightbulb moment” when they realized the particles had an electrostatic charge.

Much like rubbing a balloon on a sweater picks up lint, The Tire Collective’s device, which is powered by the car’s alternator, uses a copper plate to create an electric field that attracts dust from the tire . “Then we can clean the plates and put them in a storage box,” says Anderson.

The team built a prototype to prove the core technology, which had its first road test last year in conjunction with automotive company Geely Auto Group, allowing the group to adapt and improve it for the real environment,” says Anderson.

A growing problem

The drive to reduce particulate emissions is even more important as the world shifts to electric vehicles (EVs).

Research from Emissions Analytics shows that particulate mass emissions from tire wear are thousands of times greater than those from tailpipes, which have been significantly reduced in recent years with exhaust filters high efficiency.

So while electric vehicles reduce carbon emissions, they still contribute to the growing problem of clean emissions, says Lisa Erdle, director of research and innovation for The 5 Gyres Institute, which studies plastic pollution in cities. seas.

The Tire Collective device had its first road test last year.
In general, EVs are heavier than equivalent conventional cars, so “so it’s not a problem that’s going away,” Erdle says.
An OECD report points out that heavier electric vehicles emit more PM2.5 particles than conventional cars, while lighter electric vehicles emit slightly less. So, as more electric vehicles hit the road, non-tailpipe emissions are expected to increase by 52.4% by 2030.

“If this problem is not addressed, we will see an accumulation of tire dust in the environment,” Erdle says, adding that toxic chemicals in tires negatively impact wildlife, the environment and wildlife. human health. While there’s no “silver bullet,” Erdle says a range of measures, including toxic chemical bans or material redesigns, could help. Tire manufacturers are aware of this problem and want to innovate, but need consumer pressure or legislation to nudge them into action, she adds.

Anderson says captured rubber could be recycled into new products, including tires.

The auto industry has been receptive to The Tire Collective’s device, Anderson says. After road tests last year, the company was able to show car and tire makers that the device was “real and working”, she says.

“We’ve had a lot of interest in doing the next step from the drivers,” Anderson said.

Reinvent the wheel

The Tire Collective is currently running a three-month trial with Zhero, a London-based company that offers sustainable, low-emission logistics services.

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“When we realized there was a device in development that could help reduce and collect these emissions, we knew we wanted to be part of that process,” says Zhero co-founder Ollie King, adding that he hopes that it will improve human health. nationally and possibly globally.

Anderson says the trial will help the team gather more data on the device’s effectiveness. In the laboratory, it captures around 60% of airborne particles. The team is therefore currently investigating ways to fine-tune the electrostatics, the placement of the device on the car, and the airflow.

The cans will be emptied monthly by the garage technicians. Anderson says the team is also looking at options for recycling small rubber particles into new tires, shoe soles or rubber panels.

The Tire Collective is currently testing the device in conjunction with Zhero, a London-based logistics company.

The Tire Collective hopes to soft-launch its product in 2024 and says it will focus its efforts on retrofitting large-fleet vehicles and delivery vans, which have a regular maintenance schedule that makes it easier to fit in, clean and clean. technology oversight, says Anderson.

Eventually, Anderson hopes all cars will automatically be equipped with a device like theirs before hitting the road.

“What we are talking about here is a problem on a global scale. And that will require everyone to be aware of it and also contribute to the implementation of the solution.”

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