The JSR Group creates new value through materials. The Group strives to make contributions to society through its chemical capabilities and conduct research and development with an eye to the future.
JSR provides support to the new industries and products required by society in the form of its materials. Its role in manufacturing is to provide materials with the functions needed by customers when they are required. The company believes that its mission is to fulfill this role at all times, and has been undertaking a wide range of R&D activities to do so.
One of the products that arose from this stance is solution polymerization styrene-butadiene rubber (S-SBR), a synthetic material that is used mainly in fuel-efficient tires.
Unlike natural rubber made from tree sap, synthetic rubber made from petroleum can be given a wide range of performance characteristics by modifying the manufacturing processes. JSR began making use of this property to develop synthetic rubber for fuel-efficient tires in the early 1980s, immediately after the second oil crisis.
At that time, the price of oil was soaring, generating urgent demands from the automotive industry for higher fuel efficiency. Tires play a significant role in determining the fuel efficiency of a motor vehicle. When JSR was contacted by tire manufacturers and asked whether it was possible to invent new rubber materials to raise fuel efficiency, the company immediately began developing such a material.
"The most difficult thing was figuring out how to raise fuel efficiency while maintaining safety," says Toshihiro Tadaki, who is involved in petrochemical product research as the Manager at the Performance Polymer Research Laboratories, regarding the development of fuel-efficient tires.
"To operate a motor vehicle with a small amount of energy, it is necessary to reduce the rolling resistance that is generated by friction between the tire and the road surface. If the friction is simply reduced, however, the griping power of the tire against the road surface when the vehicle turns and stops also declines, which presents a safety problem. Fuel-efficient tires require conflicting properties: low rolling resistance and high gripping power."
In order to address this issue, the development team focused on reinforcements that are added during the manufacturing phase to increase the strength of the tire. A tire's gripping power depends entirely on the properties of the rubber, but it was learned that much of the rolling resistance during normal operation results from the formation of connections among the molecules in the tire so they gather into clumps. Tadaki explains, "Based on this, we made changes to the ends of the rubber molecules to make it easier for the reinforcements to form links without changing the properties of the rubber itself. As a result, the rubber molecules quickly form links with the reinforcement, preventing the formation of clumps."
After a process of trial and error, a satisfactory product was completed, and the first product went on sale in 1985. Following that, various other improvements were made to further increase fuel efficiency. Current products reduce energy loss and rolling resistance by 45% and approximately 20%, respectively, compared to conventional S-SBR. The result is an approximately 3% reduction in energy consumption*.
"The starting point was the oil crisis, but at an early stage we continued development from the perspective of contributing to reductions in carbon dioxide emissions," says Tadaki. "In the future, I hope we're able to continue making improvements from the perspectives of both further fuel efficiency and cost reductions so that even more customers will use our products. I think our true mission is the development not just of S-SBR, but a broad range of products that can contribute to reducing environmental impact."
* Figures are calculated based on data in the public domain.
The start of sales of S-SBR in overseas markets in the 1980s marked an important milestone in the development of JSR's global business. In March 2009, the company concluded a production outsourcing agreement with German-based Dow Europe and has built structures to ensure stable, high-volume supplies to tire manufacturers in Europe.
"The globalization of automobile manufacturers as well as automobile parts manufacturers has progressed rapidly in recent years, and demand for S-SBR in overseas markets is on the rise. We are working to bolster our global competitiveness and take advantage of this opportunity to increase supply," says Takatoshi Nagatomo, Officer, Deputy General Manager of Petrochemical Products Division. Nagatomo has been posted in Europe since the 1990s and is involved in searching for outsourcing partners and negotiating with manufacturers throughout Europe.
In European markets, where demands placed on tire performance are particularly exacting because of weather and road conditions, S-SBR has been extremely well received. JSR expects that demand for fuel-efficient tires will increase even further in the future as regulations on carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles are tightened.
"To respond to this increase in demand, we will expand our production bases to facilitate large-volume supply. Of course, it will be important to provide even higher-quality products while maintaining prices that are competitive in international markets," says Nagatomo. "Nothing pleases me more than to contribute through our products to improved safety and lower environmental impact, and as a result, to better the quality of life in Japan and around the world." This sentiment is widely shared throughout the JSR Group.
- The Future of Manufacturing at JSR
JSR has an extensive track record of R&D in polymer fields such as synthetic rubber, and we have raised our technological capabilities substantially since our beginnings. We have been able to smoothly expand our business into new fields such as semiconductors, and it is precisely because we possess core polymer technologies that we were successful in doing so.
We will use these technologies and focus our efforts in new fields such as the environment, energy, and medical care. I am confident that there are unlimited areas in which our technologies can be beneficial such as the electrolyte membranes for fuel cells as well as hypoallergenic medical materials that we have already marketed.
The products that we make are not used directly by consumers. Without materials, however, there would be no industry and no products. We are helping to create an environmentally- and people-friendly world through the provision of materials. This is the "manufacturing linked to the future" that we are striving for.