Exclusive interview with Barbara Secchi, Bridgestone Technical Center Europe: “The tire’s future is bio-based”


Bridgestone trucks. The Japanese company is MotoGP tires supplier
Bridgestone trucks. The Japanese company is MotoGP tires supplier

“The bioeconomy is challenged by the fact that bio-products have to be anyway competitive vs traditional ones, but it can also open new opportunities if we set our minds not (only) to make copies of petroleum products but also to take completely new approaches to the material world”. To say it in this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista is Barbara Secchi, Senior expert Bio-materials and EU network at Bridgestone (the world’s largest tire and rubber company) Technical Center Europe based in Rome. With Mrs Secchi we talk about bioeconomy and the bio-based future of the tire’s industry, “possibly using biomass that is not competing with food (2nd generation biomass)”.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

Mrs Secchi, Goodyear and Pirelli, Bridgestone’s two major competitors, are investing strongly in tire production from renewable sources. Pirelli through a joint venture with Versalis, Goodyear working with Novamont. What is your research activities in this field? And your partners?

We launched already back in 2012 our long term environmental vision to use 100% sustainable materials, and showcased a concept tire of 100% sustainable materials at Paris Motor Show. We say “sustainable”, not renewable, first because not all materials can be renewable (think about inorganic materials), second because renewable is not necessarily sustainable (it could e.g. impact biodiversity, or could be at risk due to illnesses, such as leaf blight for natural rubber). Unfortunately there is no official definition of sustainable, thus Bridgestone considers sustainable the materials that are not expected to be depleted, as opposed to fossil resources and other finite resources.

The commercial use of sustainable materials will be preceded by various implementation steps, based on material availability / business opportunity and study of environmental/social aspects. Such a long term view is due to the fact that also the business has to be sustainable, plus a tire uses more than 100 different materials, involving both organic and inorganic chemistry that will require setting up new technologies in the next period.

To pursue our objective we are following various routes that imply both internal activities and the set-up of strategic alliances with suppliers to create in the case of renewable materials the whole value chain, from biomass to tire raw material.

We already announced the start-up in Arizona of our research farm operations for production of rubber from guayule: this, together with the activities we are pursuing with Russian dandelion, should increase natural rubber availability in geographic areas other than South East Asia. We also cooperate with suppliers like Ajinomoto for the production of bio-isoprene, and are establishing a number of alliances to cover the whole picture of raw materials to achieve our long term vision of “100% sustainable materials”.

Is the tire’s future bio-based?

Yes, as I mentioned before. Possibly using biomass that is not competing with food (2nd generation biomass). Obviously it has to be taken into account that we need a sustainable business as well, and as of today nobody is willing to pay more for tires because they are sustainable, thus the final cost of the raw materials has to enter in the picture when taking decisions towards a material / technology selection.

What is the “Ologic Technology”?

The ologic technology capitalises on the synergies of a large diameter coupled with a narrow tread design. The tread of smaller diameter tires is typically inclined to excessive deformation during driving, while the larger diameter and higher belt tension of the ologic tire significantly reduce tire deformation and therefore conserve energy that is otherwise lost through internal friction, helping to reduce rolling resistance. The narrow tread concept instead is meant to improve aerodynamics. These improvements do not involve a trade-off in terms of safety. The tire long contact patch (relative to its narrow width), a revolutionary tread design and the use of sophisticated compound ensure outstanding grip in both wet and dry conditions.

Bridgestone is a Japanese company, with an important research center in Pomezia, close to Rome. In which area of the planet will Bridgestone invest most the next years?

Obviously Bridgestone investments follow the world population/mobility trend: it is clear that we expect in emerging countries to have a vehicles growth higher than in the consolidated ones.

As far as you’re concerned, what is the bioeconomy and how can it help the world spur growth and create new jobs?

The innovation based on bioeconomy is fundamental for Europe, considering our limited availability of raw materials. Europe is extremely active in this respect, pushing in general for innovation that can create new jobs, and in particular destining a significant portion of Horizon 2020 to the biotechnology.

Obviously the bioeconomy is challenged by the fact that bio-products have to be anyway competitive vs traditional ones, but it can also open new opportunities if we set our minds not (only) to make copies of petroleum products but also to take completely new approaches to the material world.

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