Winter Tires: Don’t Tread the Snow

Well winter has arrived here in Alberta! Right now it seems as though in Calgary we can expect a nice high pressure system to move in and make winter balmy. But this is just a small reprieve. One of the biggest challenges of the Alberta winter is driving around. Ice an snow make roads like something out of Mario Kart. So how can chemistry help you survive winter? With the science of winter tires! Why are winter tires mandatory in Quebec? Why are some Albertans lobbying for the same law in this province? Are winter tires that important? Well, anyone I have asked have all stated that they love winter tires and are shocked at the difference it has made. The difference all comes down to glass transition temperature (Tg). 

Take a look around your home. I am sure that you can find numerous examples of different types of plastics. Some are rubbery, some are hard, some are fiberous. These characteristics are going to determine how different polymers (plastics are a type of polymer) are going to be used. Now think of a plastic bucket. The kind that you may have used as a kid to build sandcastles. That thing was indestructible during the summer, but leave it outside in Calgary on a day when the high is -28 °C and drop it, that same bucket would shatter into a million pieces. What we are observing is a change in “state” of the polymer. Now this might sound odd, considering it is still solid, and the states of matter are solid, liquid, and gas. So how can we be seeing a change in state? Enter the glass transition.

Polymers can have two solid states: they can be glassy; these are hard plastics, like cellphone cases and water bottles; or they can be rubbery; these are flexible plastics, like rubber balls, or tires. The glass transition temperature (Tg) is the temperature at which a polymer switches between the glassy state and the rubbery state. If a polymer is used BELOW its glass transition temperature, it will be glassy or hard. If a polymer is used ABOVE its glass transition temperature, it will be rubbery or flexible. The polycarbonate water bottle on my desk is an example of a plastic that I am using BELOW its glass transition temperature, while the flexible silicone spatula I used to make my breakfast is an example of a plastic I am using ABOVE its glass transition temperature. Going back to the plastic bucket example: In the winter time, the bucket is below its Tg, making it glassy, and more fragile, so it breaks.
At cold temperatures, rubber tires are also going to go through this change. Rubber tires were such a great advancement (thank you John Boyd Dunlop) in the tire because these air-filled rubber tires absorbed shock, had more contact area with the road surface, and consequently, gave more traction. The more a tire interacts with the road, the more traction a vehicle has. In the snowy, icy winter, we need all the traction we can get. To get a nice, flexible tire that has lots of contact with the road, it needs to be used above its Tg. However, in Canada, our winters are going to push that. Our -40 °C winter days are going to bring a regular tire down to, if not crossing, its Tg. This will make it more rigid, and therefore, it will have less contact with the road surface, which will decrease the traction, precisely at a time when drivers want MORE traction. Also, the treads on the tire will become less flexible, allowing for snow to build up in them, further reducing traction.

Winter tires are made of a type of rubber that has a much lower Tg than summer tires or all season tires. This means that even as the mercury drops, the tire will not approach the Tg, and will stay flexible, resulting in more road contact, less snow build up, and MORE TRACTION. More traction means less sliding, smaller stopping distances, and safer driving. Enjoy safer winter driving thanks to the chemistry of polymers and the glass transition temperature. Get yourself some winter tires.