Would you bike on these airless alloy tires? Space tech could transform cycling on terra firma

The METL bike tire has origins based in lunar and Martian exploration, but could reimagine the way people rove bike lanes as cycling gains momentum across the U.S.

Image: The SMART Tire Company

Bike sales surged during the coronavirus pandemic with sales jumping 65% from 2019 to 2020 and the burgeoning electric bike market also kicked into high gear with sales increasing 145%, according to a New York Times report.

Amid the booming interest, one company is looking to reinvent the wheel. In March, the SMART Tire Company announced it was developing an airless alloy bicycle tire called METL as part of a partnership with NASA. The design’s space exploration roots could reimagine traditional cycling on terra firma.

“The inspiration behind bringing this space technology to terrestrial applications here on Earth, was the Mars Curiosity rover and the many tire challenges it has faced navigating the rough Martian terrain through the years,” said Earl Cole, CEO of SMART Tire.

“NASA engineers have been developing this new shape memory alloy technology, for an airless rover tire that is durable and flexible enough to never get cracks, dents or holes in it, while rolling over rocks and other sharp objects,” Cole continued.

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NASA invented the shape memory alloy (SMA) for rover missions on Mars and the moon, the release said, and the construction material (NiTinol+) creates a tire that “is elastic like rubber yet strong like titanium” while “exhibiting perfect shape memory without ever going flat.” The company’s website touts the METL tire as the “first ever pneumatic bike tire alternative to achieve a light-weight, smooth ride, with superior handling and durability.”

“Shape memory alloys look extremely promising in revolutionizing the entire terrestrial tire industry,” says Santo Padula, Ph.D., materials science engineer at NASA, “and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

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biketire.jpg

Image: The SMART Tire Company

The company’s website promotes the tire as “one tire for the life of your bicycle” and notes the advantages compared to traditional pressurized pneumatic tires such as “no leaks, tears, punctures or messy sealants.” The SMART Tire Company’s METL bike tire is available in gold, silver and metallic blue. 

“Cyclists will not be able to wait for these very cool-looking, space-age METL tires that don’t go flat,” Cole said. “The unique combination of these advanced materials, coupled with a next generation, eco-friendly design make for a revolutionary product.”

Beyond the cycling world, the release said, the company is also partnering with the Ford Motor Company’s Spin, a micromobility provider, to develop SMA tires intended for electric scooters.

Pricing and availability

The METL tire will be available in “early 2022,” the press release said and a section of the company’s FAQ page addresses tire costs stating that the “initial products will be more of a premium within their markets, comparable to a high performance or racing tire.”

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