Could Microplastic Emissions take Heat off ICE?

Studies have already claimed that internal combustion engine is the minority polluter in the average vehicle with up to 60% emissions blamed on tires and brakes.

Now the rhetoric against the microplastics that these emit is being ramped up just as we have a Tier 1 giant like Bosch suggesting it could produce ICE technology with effectively zero tailpipe emissions. A report issued by the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI) has concluded that while we know tire and road surface wear generates significant emissions of microplastic particles, knowledge about them is very limited..

Researchers from VTI and Chalmers University of Technology discovered during the study between 2018 and 2020 we know very little about how the particles are dispersed, the levels at which they occur in various environments, how quickly they degrade and how best to sample and analyze them. Although these microplastic particles are largely the result of tire wear, they can also be traced to worn road markings and surfaces containing polymer modified bitumen (PMBs). It is estimated that at least half of Sweden’s total emissions of microplastics come from tire wear.

Studies have shown that microplastics are present everywhere in the environment. They have been found in watercourses and water treatment works, in soil, plants, food and drink, organisms and even humans. Microplastics specifically traceable to road traffic have been found in road dust, waterways, surface water and various sediments in areas including the Swedish west coast.

Calls for action

Mikael Johannesson, research director at VTI, said: “We know that emissions of microparticles from tire wear are very large, that they are likely to degrade extremely slowly in nature and that they contain substances hazardous to living organisms. We, therefore, have every reason to limit both the generation and dispersal of tire-wear particles.”

So far, the researchers’ only suggested course of action to reduce these emissions is by moderating driver behavior, slower speeds, limited mileage and reduce the weight of cars. However, with the ever increasing demand for more power to cope with the rising size and weight of the increasingly popular SUV style vehicles, this is not likely to help much.

Indeed, the regulators’ headlong rush towards forcing automakers into increased electrification, too, raises the specter that a heavyweight executive BEV, with the size of lithium-ion battery pack needed to offer a half decent range, could end up boasting more overall environmental polluting emissions than a middleweight ICE powered vehicle. It would be well for the governments, such as the UK’s who plan the knee-jerk reaction to ban ICE technology in the name of urban clean air, to consider the real costs to the environment of dumbly following in the wheel tracks of the blinkered BEV lobby.

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_


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