ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. (July 17, 2000)—With the arrival of the new millennium there seems to be a heightened awareness of new high-tech tools and gadgets that are available to improve our lives and work. More and more people are purchasing products, from prescriptions to pet supplies, off the Internet in the comfort of their homes.
Global positioning systems, cellular phones and pagers now make it impossible to hide from your boss or your spouse. And debit cards now make it faster than ever to deplete your checking account with hardly any effort at all on your part.
So what´s new in tires? What revolutionary thing has come along to change the way we deal with those black and round donuts? Well, close your eyes and think "GAS." The new technological advancement may be the use of nitrogen instead of air to inflate tires.
Now I know you´re saying: "What´s so new about nitrogen? It´s been around since the Big Bang!" And you´re right. Not only is nitrogen literally older than dirt, but it has been used in tires long before I can remember. Nitrogen is commonly used to inflate off-road tires, aircraft tires and race car tires. Its advantages over air are numerous.
The air we breathe contains about 78 percent nitrogen and about 21 percent oxygen, which we need to sustain life. The oxygen, however, can be extremely harmful to tires in several ways. Air in the atmosphere contains varying amounts of water vapor, and the warmer the air, the more moisture it can hold.
When moist air is compressed in an air compressor, almost 80 percent of the moisture drops out of the air as water, since the compressed air can no longer hold all the water vapor. However, the higher-pressure air that inflates tires still contains the maximum amount of water possible, together with nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases in the air.
We all know that air migrates through the tire liner at a rate of about 2 psi per month. On its way through the tire, the air, which also is carrying moisture with it, contaminates the steel and initiates the growth of rust in the steel body plies.
This naturally weakens the tire. The oxygen in the tire, accelerated by the presence of water vapor, causes rusting of steel rims as well as corrosion on aluminum wheels. (Aluminum corrosion, known as aluminum hydroxide, is an extremely fine dust that is difficult to see, even inside the tire.)
The particles formed by the corrosion process can get lodged in the valve seat and cause leaks, or air can escape from affected areas along the bead flange. Blockages from these particles can occur every time the inflation pressure is adjusted or checked with a gauge. Oxygen also reacts with rubber, oxidizes it, and can make it less flexible and weaker, too.
Nitrogen, however, permeates the tire 30- to 40-percent slower than the oxygen in the air. It stays in the tire longer, so tire pressure stays more constant for a longer time.
Nitrogen does not carry any water along for the ride, so it never initiates the growth of rust within the tire, on the wheel or in the valve stem. It also is chemically inert and does not react with rubber at all. Therefore, it prolongs the tire´s flexibility and preserves the inherent strength of its structural belts and body cords.
So what does all of this mean to you and your fleet accounts?
Well, it means truck tire pressures will have to be adjusted less often, saving labor. Tread mileage and fuel economy will improve with more constant inflation pressures, and overall tire life should be noticeably extended. (Some people claim that double-digit percentage improvements in the tires´ original tread mileage have been accomplished through the use of nitrogen.)
It also should put an end to rim corrosion, saving the fleet dollars in wheel maintenance, too. Fortunately, you dealers who have wheel reconditioning services won´t really be affected, since the outside of the wheels still will look like a 1984 Datsun after a winter in Canada.
People have been talking about using nitrogen in truck tires for years. I first investigated its merits back in the late 1970s.
The problem has been that there is no infrastructure to provide readily available sources of nitrogen. I was told back then that if you contaminated the nitrogen with even a little bit of air during a pressure adjustment, you lost all the benefits of the nitrogen. That meant a fleet would have to have nitrogen facilities everywhere it inflated tires.
Back then, a nitrogen generation plant was a sizable operation and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But this is a new century, and things have changed since Jimmy Carter was president.
Now there is nitrogen membrane technology that uses specialized "straw-like" fibers similar to long strands of plastic thread. The fibers act like filters to separate nitrogen from the air.
Selective permeation is the general principle behind the membrane system. Each gas has a characteristic permeation rate that is a function of its ability to dissolve and diffuse through a membrane. This characteristic allows "fast gases" such as oxygen to be separated from "slow gases" such as nitrogen.
All that is required to make nitrogen is an air compressor. As the air travels down the middle of those hollow fibers, the oxygen, water vapor, and carbon dioxide pass through the wall of the fibers and are vented to the atmosphere. The nitrogen stays within the center of the fibers and is collected and pressurized. Tires are inflated just as they would be with air.
The amazing thing now is that several companies are marketing these systems at incredibly affordable prices. One company, MG Generon, is selling nitrogen generation systems to the average consumer at a cost of approximately $300 so people can inflate their cars´ tires in the comfort of their own garages (provided they have a compressor).
International Marketing Inc. distributes the UltraFill Tire Inflation System, produced by Air Products, that is designed for truck tire inflation. Its nitrogen generation unit is the size of an office storage cabinet.
Nitronics Systems, Inc. also produces a nitrogen generator that is 60 inches high by 24 inches wide by 18 inches deep. It also offers a separate electronic Inflation Station that dispenses the nitrogen gas and incorporates the company´s "fast purge" technique, speeding up the conversion time for those who want to convert from air to nitrogen without manually deflating the tires.
Some companies are offering lease options that make this equipment very affordable.
So with the benefits of nitrogen inflation obvious to everyone, can it really be too far in the future that we will be seeing the development of an infrastructure that enables fleets—and eventually even the average consumer—to inflate their tires with nitrogen? I doubt it.
The question is: Is this a business opportunity you may want to get in on?
Ms. Fisher, former president of Roadway Tire, is a consultant in Rochester Hills, Mich.