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Editor's Notebook

Slicing it Extra Thin: Next Big Breakthrough Will Be Measured in Billionths, Not Billions

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What will be the next great tire breakthrough? What will make radial technology the sliced bread of our age?

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If I’ve heard the question once, I’ve heard it a million times. It’s been six decades since the radial was invented – 30 years or so since it really hit the market here – but there hasn’t been an industry-changing invention since.

Some have tried, but the result was either badly burnt toast or something so untenable that badly burnt toast would’ve been an improvement.

But now I have the answer. Yes, THE answer.

Nanotechnology.

“Huh?” you say. Let me explain. Think of your favorite thing – anything. Now, think about what it would be like if it was, say, 100 times better. That’s what nanotech can mean to tires.

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Nanotechnology is the fine (literally) art of engineering products at their molecular core, at one-billionth – 0.0000000001 – of a meter. Matter behaves in a vastly different fashion at this scale, scientists have found, and making nano-alterations can give familiar materials useful new properties.

With nanotech, scientists move this around and add that and realign a passel of particles to change the performance properties of basic elements – like carbon – to make them better, to make them do things we’d never imagined.

At this level a human hair is 10,000 times thicker. Yet those submicro changes can literally turn our industry – every industry – on its ear.

It’s already happening. You know those stadium Jumbotrons? Nanotech made them possible. Scratch-proof bedliners and bumpers? Nanotech. Stain-resistant Dockers? Nanotech. Longer-lasting tennis balls? Advantage nanotech. Golf balls that fly straighter? They’ll be here soon, thanks to nanotechnology.

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The world as we know it will get much smaller. And very quickly.

Just as the transistor shrunk building-sized super computers down to today’s laptops and PDAs, experts say nanotech will lead to watch-sized PCs with more features, speed and capacity than that laptop.

Eventually, some suggest, entire computers could be woven into the fabric of a common dress shirt. Just watch the delete button, pal.

Engineers are working on nanotech-enabled implants to automatically administer drugs and adjust dosages based on a body’s reaction; a “lab-on-a-chip” so doctors can run complex tests in seconds, not weeks; a cooling wafer substitute for compressors in cars, refrigerators and air conditioners; and high-capacity, long-life portable power devices that deliver cheap, clean energy.

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Beyond the future-tech dreams are ways nanotech could improve the products we already have. Like tires.

The alignment of steel molecules could be altered to create steel cords that are 10 times stronger than today’s, yet considerably thinner and lighter. Less steel means less raw materials.

The carbon nanotubes that gave us the Jumbotron? They can be modified further to make carbon act more like its diamond cousin yet remain incredibly flexible. That could eliminate steel in tires altogether. Lighter tires means lower weight and better fuel economy. And fewer sore backs.

Rubber compounds could finally defeat that age-old performance-characteristic trade off, yielding tires with unheard of treadlife, super low rolling resistance and max traction in all weather conditions, on all surfaces. A million-mile truck tire for every fleet.

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Sidewalls could adjust on the fly, stiffening at freeway speeds for precise handling and softening when battling potholed city streets.

Tires with impenetrable rubber? Doable. Who could argue with flat-free, damage-proof tires?

Film-thin transmitters could contain a tire ID and monitor real-time inflation pressure, internal temperature and treadwear. They could be small, inexpensive and connected directly to dashboard readouts showing each tire’s condition and warning the driver when it’s time for new rubber. Or, they can be connected via telematics right to your dealership to help you anticipate a customer’s next visit.

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Has nanotech made its way into tire development? Don’t know. Will it? Ditto.

Should it? Well, that’s a toughie.

This is what I do know. When it comes to research and development, the tire industry doesn’t have to take a back seat to any industry…unless it really wants to. The technology is well established. How quickly it’s integrated is all a matter of desire.

By the way, for you golfers, NanoDynamics Inc. (www.ndmxgolf.com) plans to launch its straight-flying golf balls later this year – at $5 a pop. But if you hit the ball straighter, you should never lose one!

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