Scientists in Hamilton have found a way to dissolve the rubber used in car tires, which they say could eventually help keep what is typically a single-use item out of landfills.

In a study released Monday, researchers at McMaster University say their method could reduce the environmental and safety hazards related to stockpiled tires.

They say the properties that make tires durable on the road also make them difficult to break down and repurpose, so most end up in landfills and storage facilities, eventually leaching contaminants into the environment.

Michael Brook, the study’s lead author and a professor in the department of chemistry and chemical biology at McMaster, pointed to a massive fire that burned for weeks in a pile of 14 million scrap tires near Hagersville, Ont., roughly three decades ago as an example of the potential dangers.

The team was working with chemicals to make new silicones when they had the idea to try it on the rubber used in tires, and found it successfully broke down the sulphur-to-sulphur bonds in the material, Brook said.

He compared the rubber’s structure to a fishnet or fabric, and the chemical catalyst as a type of “molecular scissors” that cuts through the threads in one direction so that the net becomes a series of ropes, which can then be processed.

What’s left is a processable oil and a number of other materials, such as steel and polyester, that go into tires — all of which could be reused, he said.

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