Researchers in the UK have come up with a device that they say could dramatically cut the amount of tire dust that is released into the environment—and potentially, our lungs—as tires wear.

The James Dyson Award–winning innovation, made by a team from Imperial College London and Royal College of Art, was inspired by the movement to reduce the amount of microplastic pollution, which not only enters the air but also waterways—accounting for up to 50% of PM2.5 (fine particulate) and PM10 (particulate matter, or soot) emissions.

PM2.5 emissions from exhaust vs. tires and road surface

PM2.5 emissions from exhaust vs. tires and road surface

Awareness of particulate levels is likely at a high due to their health effects on a lung-based pandemic, the sharp swings in air pollution due to stay-at-home orders, and lingering forest-fire smoke in the American West. And setting tighter standards for internal combustion engines and tailpipes—which the U.S. EPA rejected earlier this year—is only part of the battle. 

Although electric vehicles produce no tailpipe emissions and generally lead to lower emissions over their lifetime, they typically produce more tire emissions because they weigh more. A study from Emissions Analytics earlier this year actually claimed that particulate matter emissions from tire wear can be worse than that from tailpipes. 

According to a 2017 study, about 550 tons of airborne particles from tires are produced annually. Further a study released in July pointed to tires and brake pads as the source of about 550,000 tons of ocean microplastic emissions annually. 

The researchers, going by the name The Tyre Collective, found that the rubber particles that come off the tire as it wears are positively charged due to friction. Likening it to the charge from rubbing a balloon on a sweater, the team says it uses an array of electrostatic plates to capture the particles—currently about 60% of all airborne particles on the test rig.

The Tyre Collective says that the average car produces about 2 grams of tire dust a day while bus routes can produce hundreds of grams a day. 

PM2.5 collector - The Tyre Collective

PM2.5 collector - The Tyre Collective

Implemented, the device would be mounted a certain distance away from the tire’s edge, somewhat like a fairing, attached to the steering knuckle. Captured tire particles are stored away in a cartridge and could actually be put to use in making new tires. 

“By capturing right at the wheel we are more effective than outdoor HEPA filters, and consume less energy than vacuuming and conventional electrostatic precipitators,” stated the team, in a page presenting the award winners

The team hopes to negotiate a development contract with a global automaker and research partnerships with two major tire producers. Although not specifically mentioned in this project, General Motors has expressed interest in being proactive in sustainable tire production and its impact. The Tyre Collective says it’s also already received letters of interest from an engineering chief for buses, so expect big trucks that pick up their own tire dust to be a thing of the not-too-distant future.