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Could polar bear paws lead to better tire traction? UA researchers trying to get a grip on the answer.

Posted at 6:44 PM, Dec 19, 2022

AKRON, Ohio — With winter weather intensifying this week—just ahead of Christmas—we all know the warnings in Northeast Ohio: Be careful and take it easy on the ice and snow.

Tire technology is always evolving to improve traction, but University of Akron researchers believe they've discovered a possible way to provide a better grip on the roads, and it involves an arctic animal that often weighs more than 1,000 pounds: The polar bear.

The researchers, Ali Dhinojwala, the H.A. Morton Professor of Polymer Science in the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, Nathaniel Orndorf, a 2022 Ph.D. graduate who is now employed at Bridgestone Americas, and Austin Garner, a 2021 Ph.D. graduate who is now an assistant professor of biology at Syracuse University took a deep dive into the paws of polar bears over a two-year period.

They noted the big bears moved across ice effortlessly and without slipping and falling and wondered if anything could be learned from their paws to apply towards making tires with better traction.

"It's the surface that they are familiar with. That's what they navigate," Dhinojwala said. "So what we wanted to understand is whether there are features on the polar bear which are different from the other bears, which would give them an edge.

The researchers looked at several polar bear paw specimens and examined bumps—known as papillae—while comparing the paws to other species of bears.

Orndorf and Garner prepared the paw pad samples from the bears and imaged them using a scanning electron microscope. The team also created 3D printouts (replicas) of the structures to vary diameter and height of features.

Through the research and the replicas, the team found the bumps on the polar bears were 1.5 times taller than other bears, making the polar bears 30 to 50% more efficient on snow and ice.

"To our surprise, it was quite interesting that our 3D prototypes actually taught us that if you have taller features, that gives you better traction on snow," Dhinojwala said.

What the researchers have learned is now being shared with the tire industry to see if the features from the arctic bear could indeed be used to make safer tires among other things.

"We hope that it's not just the tire, but it could also be grips on the gloves we wear. There are folks who actually do mountaineering," Dhinojwala said.

Dhinojwala puts the pause on too much excitement, stressing there is still a lot of work and further research to be done.

"Polar bears move at such a slower speed compared to our tires, so there are different challenges in technology that we need to think about," he said.

Ryan Yarger, a mechanic at Stan's Auto Service in Akron, said good tires are a must during Northeast Ohio winters.

"With no traction, you're more dangerous to yourself and others," Yarger said. "The deeper the tread, the more snow you'll be able to displace and move through and get better traction."

Yarger isn't quite ready to take the plunge on polar bear-like tires, but feels the idea is promising.

"They look at birds to make airplanes, right? I mean, they look at animals for a lot of things," he said.

The research at the University of Akron was done at part of a $500,000 grant through the National Science Foundation.

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