The research and development of innovative materials are key to the design and fabrication of ever-more sustainable tyres that guarantee reduced environmental impact, greater driving safety and improved production efficiency. In this context, Pirelli has activated a Joint Development Agreement with primary suppliers for the study of new polymers that are able to further improve the characteristics of the tyres in terms of rolling resistance, low temperature performance, mileage and grip. Pirelli's Research & Development is particularly focused on:
- high-dispersion silica for wet grip, rolling resistance and durability;
- high-performance carbon black derived from racing competition applications for extreme grip;
- biomaterials, such as silica from renewable sources;
- nanofillers for more stable compounds, lighter structures and highly impermeable liners;
- new silanes to guarantee performance stability and processability.
As part of the Consortium for Research on Advanced Materials (CORIMAV) with Università degli Studi of Milan Bicocca, a new selective devulcanisation technology is being studied for the recycling of materials derived from compounds of End-of-Life Tyres, which allows a significant reduction of production costs as well as related environmental impact.
The three-year (2012-2014) Joint Labs agreement between Pirelli and Politecnico of Milan, aimed at research and training in the tyre industry, covers nanotechnology, the development of new synthetic polymers, new bifunctional chemicals and new biopolymers: Pirelli is working with universities to develop a natural rubber obtained from sources other than the rubber tree. Research is aimed at diversifying the potential supply sources, thereby reducing pressure on the biodiversity of producer countries and allowing the Company to manage the potential scarcity of raw materials with greater flexibility.
In 2013, Pirelli and Versalis (Eni) signed an important memorandum of understanding with the aim of launching a joint research project into the use of natural rubber from guayule in the production of tyres. The guayule (Parthenium argentatum) is a non-edible shrub that needs little water and no pesticides, and represents an alternative source to natural rubber thanks to its hypo-allergenic properties, unlike the more common Hevea brasiliensis rubber.
This study will engage the two firms for a period of three years. During that time, and operating on an exclusive basis between the parties, Versalis will provide innovative types of natural rubber extracted from guayule that will be tested by Pirelli for use in tyre production. On the basis of this new collaboration and, upon industrial scale production of rubber from guayule, Versalis may provide Pirelli with new products that will consolidate and round out the commercial range of synthetic rubber made by Versalis and already used by Pirelli for quite some time in tyre production.
As for biomaterials, as already mentioned Pirelli has focused on silica derived from rice husk. Rice husk is the outer shell of the rice grain and constitutes 20% of raw rice by weight; the husk, which is the main waste of this crop, is available in extremely large quantities in many areas of the world. Today, rice husk has several more or less noble uses: animal bedding, organic fertilisers, solid fuel for the production of electricity (in fact has moderate heating power, around to 14 MJ/kg). However, in the less developed areas of the world it is still not valued, and is burned in the open without exploiting its full potential. In one of these areas, in Brazil, Pirelli has developed a manufacturing process able to extract industrial silica from the husk, of whose weight 18% is constituted precisely by silica. The Pirelli industrial process for the extraction of this raw material is considered thermally autonomous thanks to the combustion of the carbonaceous part of husk: this allows a strong reduction of the quantity of CO2 emitted per kg of silica compared to the conventional process, which instead exploits fossil energy sources. Pirelli has set itself the goal of supplying 30% of the production need in South America with silica derived from vegetable sources by 2017.