According to the American Chemical Society, seven gallons of crude oil go into each one of approximately a billion car tires that are produced every year worldwide. Today, however, scientists announced a development that could drastically reduce oil usage in tires. It involves isoprene, a hydrocarbon that is currently obtained as a by-product from refining crude oil, and that is a key ingredient in the production of synthetic rubber. Using sugars from renewable sources such as sugar cane, corn or switchgrass, the scientists have been able to create a “green” isoprene, trademarked as BioIsoprene. They expect it could start being used to produce tires within five years.

The technology is being developed by Goodyear, and biotech firm Genencor. "An intensive search has been underway for years for alternative sources of isoprene, in particular those from renewable resources such as biomass," said Joseph McAuliffe, a staff scientist at Genencor. "One technical challenge has been the development of an efficient process for converting sugars into isoprene. One means by which we're addressing this challenge is by using a fermentation process based on a modified bacterial strain that is designed to convert carbohydrate feedstocks into BioIsoprene product."

The current plan is for BioIsoprene to supplement the use of petroleum-based isoprene, not replace it entirely. Besides greening up the tire industry, the product could also offset isoprene usage in other synthetic rubber products, and in other materials such as hot melt adhesives used in products like diapers.

McAuliffe presented the technology in San Francisco today, at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society.