OPINION

Tech Talk | Puncture-proof tyres inspired by Mars mission, a cyclist's saviour

NASA needed a tyre that could deform when it ran over objects. Picture: Shutterstock.

NASA needed a tyre that could deform when it ran over objects. Picture: Shutterstock.

I can remember the days of my youth. Not a care in the world with my main priority of finishing my homework so I could get on my BMX bike and ride the streets with my friends.

The feeling of wind in my hair, sun on my face and ... damn, a puncture. The feeling of pushing my bike all the way home and then getting home after dark and being in trouble for being out too late.

Then one day a friend turned up with 'puncture-proof' tyres on his bike. Solid rubber! We thought this was fantastic - until we rode on them. They should have been named SHU rubber. Solid, heavy and unforgiving. As much as we were attracted to the idea of no punctures, they just didn't take off.

In the ensuing years, various solutions have been rolled out. Kevlar inserts; foam tyres, thick tubes; tubeless tyres; self-sealing liquids ... but punctures persisted. Show me a cyclist without a CO2 bottle and spare tubes and I will show you a cyclist unprepared for reality.

For all those frustrated cyclists, a saviour is coming in the form of NASA. You see, NASA had to address this problem when they first started planning their rover missions on locations where it was hard to fix a puncture - like Mars.

Imagine an entire mission being aborted because a rover ran over a sharp rock!

Imagine an entire mission being aborted because a rover ran over a sharp rock! So even if you don't care too much about the data collected by the five rovers on Mars, it is likely you are already benefitting from some technology that was developed by NASA for these missions.

Back to my punctures. NASA needed a tyre that could deform when it ran over objects, just like a pneumatic tyre, but they didn't want an air-filled tyre. Enter NiTinol+ a combination material of Nickel and Titanium. The tight molecular structure allows the tyre to flex and deform and then return to the original shape over and over. NiTinol+ is in a class known as Shape Memory Alloys (SMA). Normal material, such as steel springs, can only be subjected to strains of up to 0.5 per cent before suffering permanent deformation. SMAs can be distorted by up to 10 per cent before the deformation is permanent.

That takes care of the rovers - but what about down here on earth? The SMART Tire Company (excuse the American spelling) has been created with the blessing of NASA to create tyres for earth vehicles using this technology.

The first product they will produce? A range of bicycle tyres. Puncture proof like the solid rubber tyres of my youth but ones that will ride like a pneumatic tyre and that will only add minimal weight to the wheel. In fact if you remove the weight of the components you need to repair your inevitable flat tyre, the overall weight on your bicycle will be about the same.

Metal tyres on bitumen sounds like a recipe for broken collarbones so the metal will be coated with a long-lasting rubber tread, Polyurethanium. When your tyre wears out, forget about throwing it away. The structural integrity of the tyre will remain so you can just re-tread it. Initially pricing may be an issue. These will be premium tyres and will cost a premium price - at least initially. As with many new products, higher volumes and better production processes will result in price reductions.

Finally I may have my wish of going for a ride and not having to worry about that long walk home.

Tell me if you can recall the names of the five Mars rovers at ask@techtalk.digital.

  • Mathew Dickerson is a technologist and futurist and the founder of several technology start-ups.