Keep them rolling!

Science & technology

How do you help others build a better tire? Take thousands of them and drive them into the ground. Gather data. Repeat as needed.

ExxonMobil has been following this recipe for years at its tire-testing facility in its Baytown Technology & Engineering Complex in Texas. The extensive tire testing has made the facility’s staff the world’s experts on subjects like how fast a tire loses inflation pressure – known as inflation pressure loss rate – which hurts vehicle fuel mileage and performance. Not only that, but increasing efficiency – getting more out of every gallon of gasoline or diesel consumed– means reduced emissions and cleaner air.

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Under the microscope, the thickness of tire inner liners is measured “bead to bead.” The air pressure loss rate of a tire is partly dictated by the thickness of the liner and the quality of the polymer it is made of. [GIF]

“It’s surprising for people to find out that ExxonMobil is so involved with the tire industry,” said Chris Napier, who runs the testing facility. At the heart of this involvement is a synthetic rubber, an ExxonMobil invention known as butyl rubber. “I would say that as much as 90 percent of the butyl we make goes into the tire business in one way or another.”

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The Indoor Tire Durability Tester runs tires until they fail and come apart. The weights are meant to simulate heavy loads. [GIF]

The stakes for tire technology are getting higher. Fuel economy standards for cars and light-duty trucks are set to rise to 54.5 mpg for automakers’ fleets by 2025. Napier and members of the Baytown tire lab are gathering data that will help manufacturers produce better-performing tires to help automobiles reach the standard.

Like a well-calibrated hybrid engine or light composite materials, properly inflated tires can generate significant fuel savings. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, simply having properly inflated tires can raise fuel economy by up to 3.3 percent, while every pound per square inch below proper inflation can cause a 0.3 percent decrease. Put another way, if your car gets the current U.S. average of 24.1 mpg with a 10-gallon tank and under-inflated tires, with properly inflated tires, you could travel an additional 7 miles before needing to fill up. While that may not sound like a lot, multiplying those miles over the scale of the entire global fleet of one billion cars adds up.

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The Outdoor Tire Durability Tester, unlike its indoor counterpart, ensures tested tires are exposed to natural elements, such as UV rays, temperature fluctuations, ozone and uncontrolled humidity, all of which impact tire durability. [GIF]

“Creating a better inner liner is one of the most important ways to improve a tire’s performance,” said Napier. Synthetic rubber strengthens the inner lining of tires without decreasing their flexibility. “It is a tire’s backbone, improving overall performance by helping it maintain air over ever-longer distances.”

So every year, the company ships thousands of tires to the Baytown facility for testing. They undergo a battery of tests overseen by Napier and his team, who accumulate data and insights that will help improve tire performance.

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By the time they stop spinning, the tires will have rolled for the equivalent of 25,000+ miles, or roughly 10 times the distance between New York and Los Angeles. [GIF]

The tire tests conducted at Baytown have played a major role in establishing tire standards. Over the past 35 years, ExxonMobil has conducted numerous exhaustive studies to understand how material formulations affect tire performance.

“A tire maker goes through a lot of trouble to put all these exotic formulations into a tire’s component compounds, either to make them longer lasting, better handling or more energy-efficient,” Napier added. “But out of all these things you can do as a tire manufacturer, if the tire doesn’t hold air well, then all the other things aren’t really very effective.”

Tags:   BaytownbutylGIFsrubberTexastire testing
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