Guangzhou, China — On Chinese streets, bicycles are coming back in favor — but with a new twist that means a boost for the plastics industry.
In the last year and a half, bike-sharing companies have mushroomed in Chinese cities. Shanghai alone now has a reported 450,000 shared bicycles, rented though GPS-enabled mobile phone apps.
But the heavy riding that the rent-a-bikes must endure has created a new market for some global plastics makers: They're working with Chinese companies to solve a key challenge: building a more durable tire.
In May, both BASF SE and Dow Chemical Co. announced partnerships with Chinese firms in the so-called smart-bike-sharing industry to make better tires, since the air-filled rubber tires in traditional bikes can't take the pounding.
"You can't use air-filled tires, that's for sure," said Wang Chao, cofounder of MoBike, a Shanghai-based firm that says it's the world's largest smart-bike-sharing company. "All shared bicycles have failed to find a suitable solution so far. The best balance has not yet been found."
At the recent Chinaplas show in Guangzhou, BASF announced a partnership with Chinese bike maker Battle Fushida and Shanghai-based LOE Design to develop an airless tire made from two layers of Elastopan, a polyurethane microporous foaming material used in Puma running shoe soles.
Using the two layers of Elastopan, each with different densities, works better than having two layers of different materials, said LOE General Manager Yang Wenqing.
"We need to have a material that can last for years in the outdoors," he said. "It should be soft but not too soft, so the requirements are quite specific. The outer layer is for strength and durability, and the inner layer is soft for elasticity."