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New eco-friendly material to halve cost of run-flat tires

Japan's Omikenshi stakes financial turnaround on new fiber

A mechanic changes tires of a car: run-flat tires allow vehicles to keep going for a while after a puncture.   © Reuters

OSAKA -- Japanese fiber maker Omikenshi has developed a material used in run-flat tires that can be produced at roughly half the cost and with half the carbon emissions as the typical alternative.

The material, which the company aims to commercialize in fiscal 2021, will be used in the carcass layer, which is responsible for holding in high-pressure air and maintaining the structure of the tire.

Run-flat tires normally use high-tenacity rayon fibers in the carcass, since they need to withstand the heat generated when a vehicle runs on a punctured tire. Omikenshi, together with rubber maker Zeon, Shinshu University and other partners, developed a cellulose fiber alternative that is blended with high-strength carbon nanotubes.

The new fiber is said to cost about half as much as high-tenacity rayon since solvents can be reused. The process of unraveling the fiber is shortened substantially as well, meaning carbon emissions are reduced by more than 50% compared with high-tenacity rayon.

Omikenshi "will capture demand from tiremakers conscious of the United Nations' sustainable development goals," said senior executive Toshifumi Maeda.

Samples of the new material will be distributed to tire manufacturers as early as this winter.

Run-flat tires have received growing attention from manufacturers of electric and self-driving cars. Electric vehicles run on heavy batteries, meaning their other components have to be lighter. Run-flat tires would eliminate the need for electric vehicles to carry a spare tire. They would also allow autonomous vehicles to drive themselves to a mechanic, rather than wait for repairs at the site of the blowout.

Omikenshi sees the tire material as a key driver in its turnaround. The company forecasts a net loss of 2 billion yen ($18.9 million) for the 12 months through March 2021, the third straight year of red ink.

Omikenshi in May announced its withdrawal from rayon fiber production, a mainstay business that has faced tough competition from abroad. Its sales are projected to shrink to 2.8 billion yen in fiscal 2021, or less than a third of fiscal 2019's performance, from dumping unprofitable operations.

The company is exploring ways to incorporate the new material into air and water filters, which also need a high resistance to heat. But competition in eco-friendly materials is fierce, and the company will need to ramp up research in the field and find new creative uses for its products.

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