Where the rubber hits the road: IP analysis of eco-friendly car tyres

Car Tire 2The automotive industry is going green. Diesel engines, once hailed as the “clean” alternative to petrol, are falling out of favour—so much so that the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) reports that diesel car sales fell by 37% in March 2018, compared with March 2017.

Conversely, electric vehicles are rapidly expanding their market share. PWC predicts that electric and hybrid vehicles will account for 58% of all new car sales in Europe, the USA and China by 2025. But the negative environmental impact of the automotive industry isn’t limited to the fuels which power the vehicles on the road—the manufacturing process itself is extremely resource-intensive. The World Steel Association estimates that the automotive sector accounts for roughly 12% of global steel consumption. Faced with increasingly demanding fuel efficiency targets, car manufacturers are working hard to adopt lighter weight alternatives, such as aluminium, to reduce emissions. The paints used in car manufacturing also contain a large number of harmful organic solvents, which cause air and water pollution. Consequently, many companies are placing emphasis on reducing wastage and adopting more ecologically friendly formulations.

There is one surprising area of automotive manufacturing which has become a hotbed of eco-friendly innovation: the place where the rubber quite literally meets the road. Scientific American reports that it can take 15 to 38 litres of petroleum to produce a single tyre.

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As well as the significant petroleum content of rubber tyres, most commercially produced tyres contain natural rubber from Hevea Brasiliensis, commonly known as the rubber tree. The rubber tree is native to rainforests in the Amazon region of South America, but most of the natural rubber used in tyre manufacturing today comes from commercial plantations in Southeast Asia. Importing this raw material from Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia creates a significant carbon footprint, but also represents a serious supply chain risk. In the event of war or natural disaster, North American and European manufacturers could find themselves without a viable supply of natural rubber.

They say necessity is the mother of invention and a glance at the patent data relating to natural rubber reveals a strong current of patent activity. In particular, it seems that many of the major players in the tyre industry are paying close attention to a plant which may give them the ability to source natural rubber in the United States.

Guayule, formally known as Parthenium Argentatum, is a flowering shrub which is part of the Aster family. It is native to the Southwestern United States and, most importantly, when mature it produces the same valuable milky substance that makes Hevea Brasiliensis so revered—liquid latex.

Patent activity trend

The graph below shows that patent filing activity in relation to Guayule has been growing more or less every year, over the last 20 years—application rates even doubled between 2011 and 2013. Looking at global filing trends, we can see that nearly half (47.7%) of patents filed in this technology space were filed in the USA, which is likely to be the largest market for eco-friendly rubber.

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Guayule Global Patenting RateGuayule global patenting rate (Source: PatSnap platform)

Main Companies

The assignee names on these patent families reveal that a number of the world’s largest tyre companies are behind this growing current of innovation. Firestone, Bridgestone and Sumitomo Rubber Industries are all represented in the list of top 10 patent filers. However, automotive companies looking to get ahead of the competition may be interested in the fact that five of the top 10 companies are not direct competitors—and two of them could even be valuable collaborators.

The owner of the largest number of simple families in this technology area, Ceres Inc, is a Californian biotechnology company that develops and produces seeds of genetically modified crops. Amyris is another California-based company that develops “sustainable alternatives to a broad range of petroleum-sourced products.”

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Guayule Most Patent Intensive CompaniesGuayule most patent-intensive companies (Source: PatSnap platform)

By grouping on a 3D patent landscape the activities of the most active companies in this technology area, we can see the relative similarities and differences between portfolios. Bridgestone Corp has a cluster of patents (represented in the bottom right corner of the diagram below), which focus on ways of increasing the guayule plant’s rubber yield through the application of enzymes to the base of the plant. This cluster of patents is quite separate from those in other major tyre manufacturers’ portfolios. The exception is a handful of patents owned by Goodyear, with whom Bridgestone has recently entered into a joint venture.

The cluster of patents in the bottom left hand corner of this diagram is mainly owned by The Firestone Tire & Rubber Company. These patents relate to methods of extracting rubber from the guayule plant. Many of these patents discuss fractionation to separate liquid latex from other plant matter.

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Guayule Methods of Extracting Rubber PatentsLandscape showing guayule-related patents concerning methods of extracting rubber (Source: PatSnap platform)

This focus on methods of manipulating plant biology and optimal extraction of desired chemicals, mirrors some of the key trends seen in our new synthetic biology innovation report.

This report reveals that Danisco, a food company, has some interest in rubber. In fact, its second most highly valued patent in the area of synthetic biology is “US20160281113A1 Compositions and Methods for Producing Isoprene” (valued at $2,550,000)—the rubber tire company, Goodyear, is a co-assignee.

All this adds up since Danisco announced in late 2008 that it would be collaborating with Goodyear to develop a bio-based alternative (“bioisoprene”) for the typically Earth-unfriendly compound, isoprene. The recency of the 2016 patent linked above suggests some organisations with a similar innovation focus to Danisco’s, could find adjacent market opportunities by looking into trends within the Danish company’s overall portfolio. Companies like Michelin (focussed on bio-butadiene), Pirelli (focussed on Guayule) and Cooper Tire (focussed on guayule-based biopolymers) are already blazing trails down the same bio-based route taken by Goodyear.

To find out more about innovation trends in synthetic biology, download our free 30-page report. It uses analyses of patent data to reveal the latest trends, enabling technologies and promising applications of synbio.

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