WAUSAU, Wis. – A team of mechanical engineers funded by the Pentagon has an idea for saving the lives of troops in Iraq: An airless tire that won't go flat if shot or hit by shrapnel from a roadside bomb.
The tension of the plastic provides strength, allowing them to work just like air-filled tires, said Ali Manesh, the company's chief technology officer.
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The idea isn't entirely new, but Manesh is convinced he's found ways to overcome problems that have plagued other airless tires, such as dissipating the heat buildup that occurs when they're driven.
A handmade prototype has already been built, he said.
A flat tire on a vehicle like the Army's Humvee, especially in urban warfare, makes it vulnerable to an ambush, said Manesh, a mechanical engineer who spent five years developing his idea before the $11 million government contract was awarded.
"You can have all the armor in the world you want on a vehicle, but if the tire is vulnerable, it is going to stop the vehicle. What the military hopes to do is develop the next generation of tire to help alleviate that problem," said Jim Dobbs, a Resilient Technologies spokesman.
The goal is to have an airless tire survive what Chief Executive Officer Robert Lange calls the damage of "something shy of a land mine" so the vehicle can still drive away from the danger.
Resilient, a private research company founded in 2005, is owned equally by Augusta Systems Inc. in West Virginia, American Science and Technology Corp. in Chicago and WADAL Plastics Inc. in Medford, Wis.
Its only income so far is the defense contract, Lange said. The company also is seeking a patent for its invention.
The dream is to produce an airless tire — so far called the "non-pneumatic tire," or NPT — that could be sold commercially for passenger cars, he said.
Seven engineers and an office manager work at Resilient's office at a Wausau industrial park, testing and retesting models of Manesh's theories.
It is not a matter of whether his ideas work, only when, Manesh said. "The theory of it is sound. From theory to manufacturing, there is always glitches. Then you have to try to iron those out."
Charles Pergantis, a mechanical engineer for the Army Research Laboratory in Maryland, said Resilient has developed a "somewhat different structure" for an airless tire than has been done before.
"I think they have put together a good plan of attack on how to develop this thing," he said. "I am not sure if they are going to be meet all the successes that we want. They have some very, very interesting designs. It does sound very exciting."
Manesh refuses to discuss the details of his invention because a patent is pending.
Capt. Jason Stebbins, commander of the Wisconsin National Guard's 1158th Transportation Co., spent a year hauling equipment between Kuwait and Iraq. His big trucks traveled a combined 4.6 million miles, and his crews changed hundreds of flat tires because of punctures and blowouts.
The soldier had never heard of airless tires but likes the idea.
"I would like to have a set on my truck," Stebbins said.
Pergantis said the Army uses what are called "run-flat" tires on some vehicles. They allow a vehicle some mobility even if the tires are flat. An airless tire is the next step, he said.
Paul Mehney, a spokesman for the Army's Tank Automotive Research Development Engineering Center in Warren, Mich., said the Army is interested in an airless tire for logistics reasons, too.
A smaller supply of tires would be needed because they would not be changed as frequently and they might be lighter than conventional tires, Mehney said.
In 2005, Michelin, one of the world's largest tire makers, unveiled an airless tire, calling it a "tweel" — flexible spokes fused with a flexible wheel surrounded by a tread of rubber and no air pressure.
The tweel was described as the most radical change in the industry since the radial tire was invented nearly 60 years ago. Time magazine named the tweel as one of the most amazing inventions of 2005, but no products are being sold yet.
All Manesh will say is the series of web-like cavities on his airless tire make it different than Michelin's tweel.
Lynn Mann, a spokeswoman for Michelin's North American headquarters in Greenville, S.C., said the company has developed airless tire prototypes for the military but has no contracts to provide them. Michelin is concentrating efforts on low-speed, low-weight uses of an airless tire on construction equipment first, she said.
"We are years away from having a passenger car application," Mann said. "We do have a very early prototype for a passenger car. When you get it up to a high speed, 50 or 60 mph, there is noticeable noise. We need to solve the noise issue."
The Army uses up to 200,000 tires for Humvees a year, said Lt. Col. William Wiggins, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon.
Pergantis of the Army Research Center said airless tires must provide comfort, no vibrations and little noise, in part because of the sophisticated electronics used in military vehicles.
Pergantis, who is monitoring Resilient's research, said it is way too early to predict whether the company's innovations clear the way for an airless tire that meets the Army's needs.
"They are a small company with some big ideas," he said. "They have a good team. They want to become another Goodyear." (GT)