28.10.11

Elvis' Ghost, Tires and the Other Side (or, "Where the Rubber Meets the... HUH?")

Da-da's backyard is BIG, Dracula.

Da-da was sitting in a tire store the other day – just for fun – when something occurred to him. There are lots of cars in the world, right? And each one has, presumably, four tires. And each of those tires is rolling and abrading and wearing and tearing to the tune of serious consumer moolah. So?

A recent worldometer study noted that approximately 500 million cars had been produced in the last decade alone, and about 1B+ cars and trucks are on global  roads today, which translates into... oh, 4B+ tires. That’s a lot of tires. (Da-da knows, he has a million in his backyard next to all the barrels of radioactive waste.) And at $80 a tire… well, let’s just say for the sake of argument that there’s roughly $500 billion in rubber and a bunch of questionable grammar grinding away at any given time. A natural question to ask is: where the flock are the giant piles of tire dust?

Wouldn’t you expect there to be huge black piles of tire dust on the sides of every interstate, what with all these tires rolling and wearing all over the place? Is it being absorbed by the road surfaces? Or are the tire manufacturers impregnating the rubber with tire-eating bacteria, to not only take care of the tire dust problem, but also to keep our precious sets of tires wearing and deteriorating predictably to perpetually boost their bottom lines? What’s going on at the molecular level? Can people be allergic to tire dust? Can it be ingested? Will it make Da-da's children go to sleep faster? Is it good in beer? Are these questions making you wanna OCCUPY DA-DA? (There are a lot in there, already; bring hors d'oeuvres and a perky zin.)

99% of the info out there revolves around telling you what to do when your tires wear out and how many exciting (read EXPENSIVE) new choices you have for boring old tires, blah blah blah... [SNORE]... ah, but not HOW they wear. AhA! Reams of data exist on tire size vs. load requirements, traction, tread wear, temperature, how to make old tires into modern office buildings, how to make tire-enchilada caseroles, how great that tire casserole would look on your HEAD... that kinda thing. All the rubber geeks (that’s what they like to be called) talk a good game, hiding behind stalwart phrases like, "proprietary optimized component" and "univolume torpometric reduction." Awesome. But what happens when the rubber literally meets the road? (You were waiting for that one, right? You're so LUCKY.)

After some truly exciting research on road surfacing, Da-da finally found a DuPont engineer, Gregg Babcock, who seemed to know his stuff -- and who may or may not have been in a joking mood. Da-da asked him what happens when a tire wears on an Elvaloy-coated road surface (Elvaloy being a DuPont chemical coating for roads to make them last longer). Note that this is what the guy actually said, Da-da's not making this up.

“Tire rubber on DuPont Elvaloy roads is disposed of by Elvis,” said Babcock with a straight face. “We have an exclusive contract with him to dispose of rubber from Elvaloy roads. He takes it with him to the other side. [Italics courtesy Da-da.] Our COMPETITION, on the other hand, lets it sit on the side of the road, where bacteria eats it. The bacteria love the oil in the rubber. Don’t quote me on the Elvis thing, the King might not like it.” Oops.

Da-da then asked him what really happens to the rubber.

“Seriously, the bacteria is what eats the rubber,” he said. “I don’t know the exact details, but some form of naturally occurring bacteria just adore the high surface-to-volume ratio created by rubber wearing against the road. The bacteria eat the rubber getting at the oil. I don’t have any papers or anything detailing the process.”

Well. We can all sleep better knowing that all the tires in the world are slowly being ingested by countless legions of hungry Elvis-worshipping bacteria. Makes you wonder what else they’re eating. At least it should, MISTER TEXTING WHILE DRIVING. This of course will only remain important until that time when we don't need roads, which will be soon. No, really.

1.21 gigawatts... RIGHT THERE.
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