Graduates come together to address one of the most ignored pollutants in the world
While much of the conversation about plastic pollution has centered on the macroplastics that some of us may have negligently thrown away during our time at the beach (e.g., water bottles and disposable grocery bags), less attention has been paid to microplastics - any plastic - and less than five millimeters long - we leave that behind.
If you drive a car, you've likely played a role in the release of microplastics into the air. Vehicle tires are made up of rubber, soot, silica and metal reinforcement cables, all of which contribute to discharge.
The more you drive a car, the more often the tires wear out on the surface. And given the number of cars there are in the world (estimates are over 1 billion), the amount of microplastic particles that deflate tires is staggering.
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Earlier this year, a study published by Nature Communications magazine found that tire wear releases approximately 6.1 million tons of microplastic particles, 34 percent of which are deposited in the ocean. Not only are these particles consumed by marine life, but they also absorb light and "reduce the surface albedo of snow and ice and accelerate melting," according to the research.
Step into the tire collective: a group of four graduates from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art.
In July 2019, the UK government set about tackling air pollution by reducing emissions of a range of pollutants, including particulate matter from vehicles. She called for evidence and worked with several groups to find a solution. Around the same time, Hanson Cheng, Hugo Richardson, Siobhan Anderson, and Deepak Mallya used their engineering and design experience to find their own answer to the problem.
"We all realized that we had the same passion to find something that would help the environment and a more sustainable future," Anderson told In The Know. "We worked together and came to this microplastic pollution issue."
When Anderson and her team learned that tire wear was the second largest contributor to microplastic pollution (single-use plastics are the biggest contributor), they began studying how particles are emitted from tires. Her Eureka moment came when one of them rubbed a balloon against her sweater and noticed particles bouncing around, attracting each other.
"From then on, it was just a lot of time in the day iterating and building various prototypes until we got to our last," said Anderson of the team's new device, which reportedly contained 60 percent of all airborne particles Tire gathered under itself has a controlled environment. "It uses a combination of electrostatics and airflow around the spinning wheel."
Image credit: Tire Collective
The members of the tire collective worked with various departments at Imperial College London and spent three months on the project - initially in parallel with their studies, but later as co-founders of a startup, Cheng said. The team produced two different models: one as a proof of concept and the other as a final prototype (according to Cheng, it's a "retrofit device that can be attached to existing vehicles to measure tire wear").
In particular, the prototype can be placed next to where the tire touches a surface. The electrostatics trap the particles, which are collected in a removable storage unit. The fragments are then processed and reused, creating what the team calls a “closed loop system”.
"We have spoken to both tire manufacturers and automobile manufacturers," said Cheng. "Sustainable tires are being developed, but a full takeover will take some time. So we see that our device is, so to speak, positioned until its launch."
For their work, the tire collective won the national James Dyson Award - a renowned international design award. Your device will enter an international competition for the finals of the Top James Dyson Prize next month.
"I think [the award] in particular has given us a lot of reassurance to address this issue of tire wear," said Cheng. "We thought we were the only ones taking care of it as much as others."
Anderson attributes much of the group's recent success to its diversity.
"Because of our background and the different perspectives our team brings, we wouldn't be here without that," she said. "It's incredibly valuable to just be able to brainstorm different things and have people bring different things to the table too."
Even so, the job doesn't stop there, said Anderson and Cheng. In the UK, the use of electric vehicles has increased which will only result in a further increase in tire wear emissions due to the extra battery weight and torque in the vehicles. The hope is that the invention of the tire collective will one day hit the market and help significantly reduce the microplastic pollution that all cars - including electric ones - cause.
"As we drive this transition to a greener future and take on more responsibility, we now have an opportunity to really make changes and try to develop zero-emission vehicles," said Anderson. “These are things that we can think about and start implementing. This is a great opportunity for us to make a huge difference. "
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