It may be an inconvenience or a sheer nightmare but it’s never expected: the moment you find yourself on the side of the road with a flat tire. All the conveniences of AAA and 24-hour auto shops couldn’t save you from the often-expensive and (excuse the pun) tiresome slog of replacing a damaged tire but a team of German and Finnish scientists from the Leibniz Institute for Polymer Research Dresden may have the solution. They’ve recently designed a new elastomer that, in early tests, has proven effective at healing its own puncture wounds.
A History of Vulcanization
Rubber tires have always relied heavily on a manufacturing process known as vulcanization. An elastomer benefits from the vulcanization process in that it affords a combination of rugged durability and rubbery flexibility. Vulcanization was discovered unintentionally in 1839 by renowned chemist and engineer Charles Goodyear. Basically, the process takes the tangled and bound molecules of the elastomer and treats the material with sulfur to allow for desirable elasticity. Vulcanization has since been the sole method employed in the production of automobile tires. However, the newly-developed elastomer finds scientists bypassing the vulcanization process altogether. Rather than utilizing the method of sulfur-curing, the new rubber material uses carbon and nitrogen to reinforce bonding in the self-healing stages.
A Self-Healing Elastomer with Longevity
The new elastomer takes advantage of a common bromobutyl rubber material rich in bromine atoms. Skirting the industry standard cross-linking vulcanization process, the research team were able to create an elastomer capable of reacting to punctures with self-healing chemical ionic bonding. While this is not the first team to attempt the creation of a self-sustaining elastomer, they are the first to achieve a composition with longevity. Other trials, while immediately successful, did not hold up to stresses and standards that would be required of a functioning automobile tire.
The Overwhelming Benefits of Self-Healing Rubber
The benefits are immediately obvious. Whereas standard rubber elastomers are permanently compromised when punctured by a stray nail or glass shard, the new elastomer immediately begins to mend itself at room temperature. Applying a heat catalyst of 212° F for the first 10 minutes following the puncture was noted to increase the healing process. A mere 8 days following the puncture, the elastomer was found to endure pressure over 750 psi whereas the average pressure for a standard automobile tire is somewhere around 30 psi. The new elastomer passed the test several times over.
The research team has already published their data in the American Chemical Society’s Applied Materials and Interfaces journal but there is no word yet on when you’ll be able to equip your ride with tires designed from the self-healing elastomer. While the AAA card will remain prominently in your wallet for the time being, at least you can breathe easier knowing the innovation of self-sustaining tires is on the horizon.