AKRON — The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded $1.5 million grants to Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., Goodyear and PPG Industries Inc. to study, evaluate and develop technologies for improving the fuel economy of the nation's vehicle fleet.
The grants, the first ever awarded by the DOE to companies in the tire industry, will fund vastly different projects, from Cooper's challenge to cut passenger tire weight and improve fuel efficiency by 3 percent to Goodyear's work on technology to keep truck tires properly inflated automatically, to PPG's project to improve air pressure retention.
The grants were among 40 the DOE awarded recently as part of an initiative “to accelerate the development and deployment of advanced vehicle technologies,” according to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Awarded by the DOE's Office of Vehicle Technology—whose mission is described as developing “more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly highway transportation technologies that enable America to use less petroleum”—the grants are worth more than $175 million.
Cooper's project is “develop and demonstrate a new class of fuel-efficient tires, focused on the replacement market, using innovative materials technology and tire design concepts to improve overall fuel efficiency by 3 percent,” according to the DOE's list of projects.
Goodyear's is for work on system to keep truck tires inflated without external assistance, and PPG's is to study new materials for reduced rolling resistance and extended pressure retention.
For Cooper, the grant “accentuates a renewed commitment and emphasis by Cooper to leverage our technical capabilities,” said Chuck Yurkovich, vice president of global technology. “Ultimately this will bring increased value and benefits to end-users. It presents us with the opportunity to expand our efforts beyond traditional areas and ultimately to bring new lightweight fuel efficient products to the public much more rapidly.”
Cooper hopes to come up ideas to cut the weight of a typical passenger tire 20 percent and reduce its rolling resistance sufficiently to achieve a 3-percent improvement in vehicle fuel efficiency, Mr. Yurkovich said. Cooper expects to bring its own resources to the project as well, he added, possible doubling the amount of funding available.
While it's too early to discuss specifics of Cooper's project, Mr. Yurkovich did say it's obvious the research would have to consider changes to or alternatives to the steel belts, since the project is looking at a projected weight loss of seven to eight pounds per tire.
To help it accelerate the development, Cooper is partnering with the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) for modeling and computational analysis of fuel-efficiency technology. The tire maker calls Golden, Colo.-based NREL the “nation's premier laboratory for research and development in renewable energy and energy efficiency.”
While Cooper will tap into the NREL's vast computing resources for “modeling and computational analysis of the new technology's impact on improved tire performance,” development of the technology will be carried out in Cooper's Findlay, Ohio-based technical center and plants in the U.S., the company said.
Cooper said it will use the DOE funding to “accelerate the development and refinement of innovative tire design, construction, materials and reinforcement technologies” focused on the replacement tire market and allow the company to enhance its technical capabilities and product offerings.
Cooper did not say how many staff would be involved in the project, but Mr. Yurkovich acknowledged it would involve personnel from several disciplines, including polymer science, reinforcements technology, computer modeling, tire testing, manufacturing, etc.
Mr. Yurkovich was keen to point out since Cooper's project focuses on replacement market tires, it has a huge potential impact on fuel consumption and the associated emissions.
“If we could convert all the tires Cooper sells,” he said, “we'd be looking at a savings of 127 million gallons of gas. Convert the entire fleet of vehicles in the U.S. and the savings would be more than 1 billion gallons a year.” That amount of savings translates to a reduction in CO2 emissions of 21 billion pounds.
The savings would multiply in the manufacturing end, he added, where 70 percent of a tire is made of petroleum-derived materials.
Goodyear's grant, to be administered by the National Energy Technology Laboratory in cooperation with Goodyear's Innovation Center in Akron, calls on Goodyear to develop a viable system of enabling tires to remain inflated at their optimum pressure without the need for any external pumps or electronics.
Goodyear already has a system in development that it calls Air Maintenance Technology (AMT). All components of the AMT system, including the miniaturized pump, will be fully contained within the tire, Goodyear said.
“While the technology is complex, the idea behind the AMT system is relatively simple and powered by the tire itself as it rolls down the road,” said Jean-Claude Kihn, Goodyear senior vice president and chief technical officer, in a prepared statement.
“A tire that can maintain its own inflation is something drivers have wanted for many years. Goodyear has taken on this challenge and the progress we have made is very encouraging,” Mr. Kihn said.
Goodyear declined to discuss the particulars of the technology it envisions, but reviewing some recent patent applications reveals one concept that depicts an air chamber within the tire with inlet and outlet valves that are designed to release air into the tire when it's called for and vented to the outside when not. The natural compression of the tire rolling through its footprint is the mechanism used to keep the chamber inflated.
Goodyear said it could not estimate when this technology would be commercially available, but said the DOE grant and similar support from the European Union would allow the company to accellerate development of the technology.
Besides the obvious advantage of better fuel mileage that would result from constant proper inflation, Goodyear noted other advances would be reduced emissions, longer tire life, enhanced safety and improved vehicle performance.
Goodyear recently was given a grant from the Luxembourg government for research and development of an AMT system for consumer tires. That work will be carried out at Goodyear's Innovation Center in Colmar-Berg, Luxembourg.
“While similar in concept, there are significant differences in AMT systems for consumer and commercial tires,” Mr. Kihn said.
The grant awarded to Monroeville, Pa.-based PPG Industries is to be used to investigate ways to improve the rolling resistance and fuel efficiency of tires through use of new tread compound and innerliner technologies, the DOE said.
PPG, a supplier of Agilon precipitated silicas used by tire makers in compounds used in rolling-resistance-optimized tires, will enlist Goodyear's help to study and develop the materials, Goodyear said.
The grant spells out a task of achieving a 4-percent increase in average fuel efficiency of passenger fleet through use of modified silicas in rubber compounding and research into new barrier coatings to reduce pressure losses caused by oxygen migrating through the tire's innerliner.
In a prepared statement, PPG said it believes this cost-shared project to accelerate the development and demonstration of technologies that improve the fuel efficiency of tires is “perfectly aligned with customer needs.”
The company said the task to reduce pressure loses will allow it to leverage its expertise in high-performance functional coatings, including barrier coatings.