NASA has given the world a bevy of wonderful inventions, whether it's heart pumps, LASIK surgery, the Tempurpedic mattress, or velcro. But now, it’s ready to hit the road.
The result of the better half of a decade of development at NASA, the new METL bicycle tire from The SMART Tire Company uses a nickel-titanium alloy called NiTinol that has been specially treated to more-or-less permanently retain its shape. When heated beyond 500 degrees Celsius and then immediately cooled, a shape-memory alloy object will “remember” its original shape and return to it after deforming.
What’s new — NASA’s shape-memory alloy is sort of a Tempurpedic-esque metal-mesh tire that can take a beating, deform like a rubber tire, and then reform back into its original shape as if nothing happened. Sounds great, right? The SMART Tire Company thought so and is moving to bring those tires to the road, melding it with the world of cycling.
In a press release, Earl Cole, CEO of The SMART Tire Company highlights the durability of the company’s new product. (The SMART in the name stands for Shape-Memory Alloy Radial Technology.)
“Due to their ability to undergo phase transitions at the molecular level under strain, [shape-memory alloys] are unlike any other material, exhibiting perfect shape ‘memory’ over time,” Cole says. “The result is cycling products that are innovative, lightweight, durable, and never go flat.”
Here’s the background — It turns out that driving around on another planet really does a number on wheels. The Curiosity rover on Mars has experienced unexpectedly high damage to its wheels and, though Curiosity is still going strong, NASA saw the need for tough tire tech that would be able to handle anything the Red Planet might dish out.
NASA has a program called the NASA Technology Transfer Program. It involves offering NASA-developed technologies out into the world to develop innovations “for exploration and discovery” that are “broadly available to the public, maximizing the benefit to the Nation.”
In this case, NASA created a metal tire that performs just like a rubber tire but better, and The SMART Tire Company is ready to put it in the hands of consumers.
Most tire manufacturers build tires with the idea that they’ll wear out and be replaced several times over the lifetime of a bike. The METL tire will be the opposite, and the company says the tire might last longer than the bicycle it’s mounted to — and its price may reflect this, though the company is mum on the cost currently. It also isn't giving details like the weight of the tire, though it claims some of the major benefits of the technology include reduced weight and higher load capabilities.
To put the METL tire to the test, SMART says it put a traditional tire on one end of a bike and a shape-memory alloy tire on the other. The testers couldn’t tell the difference between them in performance.
What’s next — The SMART Tire Company is currently raising cash from investors to fund its commercial product development on WeFunder, a sort of Kickstarter for startups looking for early investors.
Of course, this isn’t the only tire company looking at airless tires. Two years ago, Michelin showed off its Uptis (Unique Puncture-Proof Tire System) tire that could be available later this decade.