British students have won this year’s UK James Dyson Award for an invention that can capture the airborne microparticles shed by tyres as a car drives along.
The team — dubbed ‘The Tyre Collective’ — made a device that captures the air- and water-polluting dust at the source and is wrapped around part of the edge of a tyre.
It uses a combination of the aerodynamics of the spinning wheel and electrostatics to collect the dust, which become positively charged due to friction with the road.
Tyre dust — produced every time a vehicle brakes, accelerates or turns a corner — is estimated to account for half of all road transport particulate emissions.
In Europe alone, this wear-and-tear releases half a million tonnes of microscopic particles out into the environment, researchers have estimated.
In fact, after single-use plastics, the tiny bits of rubber from tyres are the next largest source of microplastic pollutant that ends up in the world’s oceans.
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‘Everyone focuses on air pollution being directly from the engines themselves and coming out of the exhaust pipe,’ Tyre Collective member and engineer Hugo Richardson told the Reuters news agency.
‘But what people don’t necessarily recognise is that tire wear is a huge contributor to that — and that’s partly down to its microscopic size and the fact that you don’t obviously see it all the time.’
Mr Richardson and colleagues said that — when tested in a controlled environment —their prototype can collect around 60 per cent of all airborne particles released from a vehicle’s tyres.
The collected particles can be recycled — turning them into inks and dyes, or even back in new tyres.
The significant reduction in traffic brought about by the coronavirus lockdown has given people a glimpse of how clean a city’s air can be, Mr Richardson said.
‘I think we all realise that clean air in our cities is not a pipedream any more, but something that is immediately achievable with some clever innovation and some impetus from those in charge.’
The benefits to public health could be profound, the researchers have said.
‘These particles are actually small enough to be inhaled,’ said Siobhan Anderson, a member of the Innovation Design Engineering program offered jointly by Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art.
‘So they can cause different lung diseases and developmental issues — and they also enter our water and eventually make their way through our food chain and come back to us.’
According to the researchers, the increasing shift towards electric vehicles will likely see pollution from exhaust emissions fall — but tyre particles will remain an issue.
In fact, the team believes that tyre emissions may actually increase, as electric vehicles are heavier — due to added battery weight — causing more tyre wear.
The Tyre Collective, which won in £2,000 prize money, will now progress to the international stage of the James Dyson Award — the results of which will be announced on November 19, 2020.
In the meantime, the team is working on securing a patent for their design and continuing the project as a start-up venture.