MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — From the earliest days of the automobile, we’ve been traveling on rubber tires derived from refined petroleum.

But for the past decade, the tire industry has been exploring ways to take fossil fuel out of the equation. A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering and the Center for Sustainable Polymers believes it has discovered a way.

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“We study the conversion of biomass in a liquid phase reactors,” associate professor Paul Dauenhauer said.

At the Amundson Hall lab, Dauenhauer and his team of scientists have developed a process to transform glucose into the chemical compounds used to make synthetic rubber.

“Anything that has glucose in it we can use to make these products,” he said. “Trees in the north, grasses, corn, anything with glucose will work.”

Dauenhauer led the team that discovered the breakthrough after several years of research.

What they’ve discovered is a chemical process that transforms glucose in biomass found into the isoprene molecule essential to making the polymer for synthetic rubber.

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“The strategy we’ve taken is to treat biomass more like processing petroleum,” Dauenhauer said. “We use catalysts and high temperatures and it turns out to be a very effective way to make these molecules from natural resources.”

He says the material produced has the same color, shape and performance as synthetic rubber tires.

The isoprene would simply be made at an ethanol plant – instead of an oil refinery. The university research was just published in the journal for the American Chemical Society.

Funding for the extensive work was provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

As for when the process could be scaled up for industrial development, Dauenhauer says that “the fastest you could hope to see something like this is the next year or two.”

The breakthrough has the potential for revolutionizing the tire industry, and it’s all thanks to the promise of renewable biomass.

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The University of Minnesota has already been granted a patent on the process and will license it through the school’s Office of Technology Commercialization.