Where the bio-rubber meets the road

Giant tire company Goodyear and its biotech partner Genencor hope to replace petroleum-based isoprene in car tires with a bio-based alternative.

My posts about biotechnology as it relates to agriculture tend to draw impassioned naysayers, but surely here's a biotech application with which they can relate: a renewable fermentation process that seeks to act as a partial replacement for the an oil-based processes that goes into making synthetic rubber.

Biotech company Genencor, which is a division of Danisco, is more than one year into testing the commercial applications for what it calls BioIsoprene, a technology that replaces the oil-based feedstock for part of the synthetic rubber-making process with renewable biomass. The BioIsoprene technology is being designed as a renewable alternative for isoprene, which is used for everything from tires to hot-melt adhesives. Genencor pegs the market for isoprene at 11 billion pounds by the year 2012.

In one specific project, Genencor has teamed up with Goodyear to create concept tires using BioIsoprene. "From a chemical standpoint, we are making the same chemical," says Rich LaDuca, senior director of business development for Genecor. "The only difference is that we are using biology to make it, and we are using renewable raw materials. We are not using old carbon."

It will take some time for these tires to actually hit the commercial market. Genencor and Goodyear are in the process of building a small-scale facility to really validate the process and ensure that BioIsoprene doesn't in some way change the performance of Goodyear tires. Yes, what they are doing could be good for the environment, but both companies are also interested in creating a cost-competitive product that is a better economic alternative than the petroleum-based isoprene, which can be volatile in price and availability, according to LaDuca.

"What we're trying to do is just make it commercially feasible to produce isoprene through fermentation," says Jesse Roeck, director of global materials science at Goodyear.

Roeck says the idea for this process was born about four years ago. For an idea of the impact, consider that approximately 50 percent of consumer tires are made from polymers, including natural and synthetic materials. The BioIsoprene would play a role in a portion of that material, and we aren't likely to see anything available commercially for at least two more years.

"This is as big a project as you might expect," Roeck says.

Would Goodyear be doing this even if corporate sustainability wasn't as "big" as it is becoming? My sense is that the answer is yes, as the company looks toward guaranteeing a cost-effective supply of the raw materials for its tires for many years to come.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com