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Japan chemical makers putting next-gen rubber to road

Tough standards, heavy electric vehicles demand tires with better mileage, handling

TOKYO -- Japan's top chemical makers are pumping up production of next-generation rubber for high-performance tires, expecting demand to accelerate as more electric vehicles hit the streets.

Asahi Kasei has unveiled a new type of rubber that, when used in tires, offers more than 10% improvement in fuel efficiency without sacrificing resistance to wear. This material is the next generation in solution-polymerized styrene-butadiene rubber, or S-SBR, which provides better mileage and handling on the road than other types of rubber. The Japanese chemical maker is the world's leading producer of S-SBR.

The new rubber will show up in tires from Germany's Continental and other manufacturers in 2018, starting with the European market. The European Union in 2016 banned the sale of tires that do not meet strict environmental and handling stability standards. Electric vehicles are also more widespread there than in other parts of the world. These environmentally friendly autos' batteries and electronics make them heavier than conventional vehicles, creating a drain on efficiency that top-of-the-line tires aim to offset.

Asahi Kasei's S-SBR plants in Singapore and Japan are currently running at full capacity for a combined 240,000 tons of annual output. The company said in July it would add an additional 30,000 tons or so of capacity at the Singapore facility, and aims to increase sales of the material 15% by 2020 compared with the 2016 level.

JSR will begin mass-producing its own next-generation S-SBR this year, which offers lower rolling resistance thanks to changes in its silica content, resulting in better fuel efficiency. Manufacturers including Bridgestone will use the material, which will also provide better handling.

The chemical maker is expanding a Thai rubber plant and plans to begin production at a Hungarian facility as early as 2018. Production capacity in that year is to be double that in 2016, and the company aims to increase sales 10% annually through March 2020.

Global tire sales for passenger cars and minitrucks are expected to reach 2.21 billion units in 2025, up 38% from 2015. S-SBR demand is expected to double over that time to 1.75 million tons as tire companies work to make driving safer and keep up with stricter environmental regulations, such as Europe's and those China plans to apply starting in 2019. Japanese chemical makers could lead the way, if they use their development assets wisely.


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