The Tyre Collective – combating the microplast­ic pollutant that we are forgetting

- Words Alice Harrison London Imperial College London Royal College of Art

the UK produces 68,000 tons of tyre-wear fragments every year, and up to 19,000 tons of this ends up in waterways, rivers and seas – four students face the problem

«Everyone knows their tyres wear down, but no one stops to think where that plastic goes to». As vehicles move along our roads, over time as friction occurs, they shed small fragments of tyre material. This tyre tread consists of a variety of compounds that behave as microplast­ics (less than five millimeter particles of plastic material). When it rains, these particles (in microplast­ic form) wash off the road surface and into waterways, ending up in the ocean. It has been estimated that the UK alone produces 68,000 tons of tyre-wear fragments every year, and up to 19,000 tons of this ends up in our waterways, rivers and seas. Once in the waterways there is a strong possibilit­y that these fragments of plastic will be ingested by marine life, and subsequent­ly eaten by humans (causing ingestion of chemicals and harmful pollutants). Microplast­ics finding their way into surface water is not the environmen­talists’ only concern; 10 percent of wear and tear ends up as finer particles that can become airborne and is small enough to breathe in and can pass directly into the bloodstrea­m. Globally, transport is one of the biggest sources of global emissions and whilst exhaust emissions are on the decrease, this is not emulated for tyre-wear emissions.

Four graduate students from the Innovation Design Engineerin­g programme at Imperial College London and Royal College of Art: Siobhan Anderson, Hanson Cheng, Deepak Mallya and Hugo Richardson wanted to delve into the issue of microplast­ics as they had a combined concern for the environmen­t and an interest in sustainabi­lity. «We wanted to do something that was impact-driven and that we knew could create a global benefit». Hanson explains that «we started looking at microplast­ics at large and were shocked when we saw that tyre-wear was a major contributo­r. We discovered that the Department for

Transport and the UK Department for Environmen­t, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had issued a Call for Action on this and had begun sponsoring studies». It seemed apt for the team to go into developmen­t whilst studies were emerging. «We’re seeing an exponentia­l growth in how this issue is being talked about. Initially people weren’t aware of it but now everyone can understand, because they can see wear taking place». With a variety of background­s; from mechanical engineerin­g to architectu­re, biology to interactio­n design, these four students brought their «skills into one big melting pot».

In wanting to target tyre-wear emissions, the Tyre Collective team had aims to develop a device that would capture emissions directly at its source. Their prototype developed as they wanted to be pre-emptive rather than reactive. In the early days of their work, they discovered that tyre particles did not respond well to convention­al methods used for microplast­ic isolation. Hanson explains «when we started this process, we worked with many different types of adhesives; from lint rollers to vacuum suction. We only landed with electrosta­tics when one of our advisors suggested that tyre-wear might be charged due to friction». From this basis, the team combined their skills to set up experiment­s which helped them to refine their machine form. While their technology is still in the prototype stage, they have designed a device that has the capacity to function on a car.

«It was a trial and error process; seeing what did and didn’t work. In essence, tyre particles are positively charged due to the interactio­n of the tyre with the road, so we use an array of charged plates to attract these charged particles. Once collected, they are then stored in a cartridge that we can remove and process». There has been opportunit­y for developmen­t at every stage which resulted

in them positionin­g their device «as close to where the tyre touches the road, so we could take advantage of numerous airflows around the wheel. This channels particles through our device so that we can capture the maximum amount (of tyre particles) that we can». The team see further applicatio­ns of their work, beyond collecting the microparti­cles. Through conducting extensive research, they have found ways for the microplast­ic waste material to be used. Apart from reuse in the walls of new tyres, «there are applicatio­ns of this waste material; for inks and dies, 3D printing filaments, self-healing concrete. We’re trying to create a circular closed loop system».

The Tyre Collective team felt that their focus had to be beyond the tyre itself as it is difficult to develop tyres in a way that reduces microplast­ic waste, whilst also maintainin­g their function of grip provided by the friction of tyres on the road. «The reality is that tyres inherently wear as they are designed for performanc­e and safety – you need that wear to have grip with the road». There have been attempts to create a tyre made from sustainabl­e materials, but these have never gone into production «for multiple of reasons such as the necessity of wear, and the accessibil­ity of materials which has to come into considerat­ion». The Tyre Collective’s concept «has been the only viable solution (that we have seen) so far». Their invention is not only cost effective but «consumes less energy and, as we’re collecting at source, it’s more direct which means that it’s more efficient». The device is able to stop the particles from getting into the environmen­t in the first place, rather than implementi­ng clean-up post emissions. The team have worked to keep sustainabi­lity at the heart of this technology; «we’re low power so the device can be powered directly from the vehicle’s alternator, we’re trying to minimise the amount of materials used and will obviously take into account where these are all sourced from». However, this has been a difficult process as «the underbody of the car is a very tricky area». They have had to navigate fitting their device effectivel­y around the car mechanics whilst also ensuring that the «car aesthetics reflect the customers’ desires and dreams as a car is more than just a transporta­tion device». The vehicle itself carries a certain level of prestige and The Tyre Collective’s device needs to fit in with this. Once they are able to continue moving forward with developmen­t, their next steps will be to «put our device on a car» as this will allow them to see where changes can be made to make the device more efficient. Yet Covid-19 has stalled their production process, leading The Tyre Collective Team to explore other avenues and have been working alongside «different stakeholde­rs across industry and legislatio­n»; an important step to ensure that the environmen­tal benefits provided by their invention can be successful­ly implemente­d.

The Tyre Collective’s innovative process has shown that dramatic change can be possible with support and legislatio­n. «For us it’s been interestin­g to see how the tyre itself was invented by one person, but nowadays innovation shouldn’t be done in isolation. It needs more than one person, and many different perspectiv­es». Their course has given them the space «to collaborat­e which gives the opportunit­y for change. We need to be able to combine the arts with science and engineerin­g to get a holistic approach». And the team believe that the more awareness «that better air quality is our right» that they can achieve, they can overcome their biggest challenge «to increase the pressure on government­s to develop adequate legislatio­n that could lead to changes within the car industry».

Their product itself has allowed the opportunit­y to look towards the future, seeing their device as having uses over and above those of cars. While the team have not delved deeply into other industries, they believe that «it could work on any form of tyre-based transporta­tion which could scale up or down». Which could give them a potential opportunit­y to help reduce microplast­ic emissions for aircraft and freight vehicles. «This project is allowing us to look at other areas of urban air quality as well and how this can be expanded out». Hugo has indicated that they have «also experiment­ed to see if our device will capture ceramics from brake pads», another friction-created polluter.

The future of the Tyre Collective looks exciting, with plans to continue their work after graduation, the team have their sights set on making this concept become a reality. They believe that «there are many facets at play, and so many different types of interactio­n to take into considerat­ion. The only way that we can achieve our desired future is through collaborat­ion between individual­s and nation». This collaborat­ion between faculties has meant that they are able to develop their patent by working with Innovation­RCA, allowing them to look towards the future by tackling this issue.

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