Top Menu

Pushing Nitrogen – Interview with Keith Rowell, Bridgestone Corporation

The shortage of off-the-road tires has mining operators finally listening to Keith Rowell. For more than 20 years, Rowell has traveled to mines and quarries surveying their operations and recommending changes to improve the efficiency of their tires” one of which has always been nitrogen inflation. Rowell, corporate accounts technical support manager for Bridgestone Firestone of North America, admits that in the days when off-the-road tires were abundant, not all mining and aggregate operations welcomed his suggestions with open ears.

Times have changed

When the cost of materials began to rise, mines in China, Russia, India and the United States began reopening. In fact, coal, copper and gold mines that had once shut down, restarted operations to take advantage of the profitable market. “As more and more mines started opening up, they wanted more equipment and more tires, and we were not prepared for it. The tire industry was just not prepared,” Rowell says.

Today, it’s not unusual to see mines with equipment out of commission and sitting on blocks awaiting replacement tires. This isn’t a sight that is expected to go away anytime soon. Several tire manufacturers like Bridgestone Firestone have invested millions of dollars to grow their off-the-road tire production facilities, but those payoffs likely won’t be seen until at least 2007, Rowell says. The reason for the time delay is because tire companies must first build new manufacturing equipment before increasing capacity.

In the meantime, Rowell can only continue to preach the same best practices that he did prior to the tire shortage. “Especially now, with the shortage of tires, end-users are trying to find any way they can to make their tires last longer,” he says.

Advocating nitrogen inflation

One of those best practices Rowell strongly recommends is replacing ambient air with nitrogen to inflate tires. It’s a practice he says several off-highway equipment manufactures also advise in their operating manuals.

Rowell discovered the advantages of nitrogen 20 years ago while working with motor sports. While mining equipment doesn’t rev up to the speeds of racecars, Rowell says the benefits of nitrogen can greatly increase the efficiency and life of off-the-road tires. Because nitrogen is a cooler gas with a much higher combustion temperature than ambient air, it helps tires stay at a constant inflation pressure, thus decreasing the likelihood of tire fires and flats while improving tire performance. Nitrogen also doesn’t contain the moisture found in ambient air, which means the inert gas is less likely to rust or age the wheel and rim components.

“It’s a bigger molecule than oxygen so you lose less inflation pressure due to natural processes through the sidewalls,” he says. “Inflation pressure is the life of a tire. Without it, a tire is dead.”

In the past, nitrogen was costly to obtain because it had to be purchased in liquid form and by the bottle. Not only did transporting the liquid nitrogen-filled bottles pose safety hazards, but mining operators also had to contend with having a limited supply at one time.

Safer option

Now, with the introduction of nitrogen systems, Rowell says mining operators have a less costly and much safer option. The Ingersoll-Rand Nitrogen Tire Inflation System supplies an unlimited amount of nitrogen by utilizing a semi-permeable membrane to separate the gas from the air around us. Rowell says he learned of the Ingersoll-Rand Nitrogen Tire Inflation System through Halltech Environmental Inc., which has married its inflation system with Ingersoll-Rand’s nitrogen generator. Because the Ingersoll-Rand system is a stand-alone generator that creates nitrogen onsite, it can be mounted to field service trucks for greater accessibility. If properly maintained, the system can last well beyond 20 years.

As part of Rowell’s best-practice recommendations, he is building awareness about the nitrogen tire inflation system, especially among mining operators. Today, a majority of hard rock mines (gold, copper, coal, etc.) inflate equipment tires with nitrogen, whereas, just two decades ago, that percentage was zero. But aggregate quarries are lagging. Of the almost 2,400 rock quarries in the United States, Rowell says he doesn’t know of any that inflate equipment tires with nitrogen.

Closing the gap

The disparity between hard rock mines and aggregate quarries stems from how equipment tires are serviced. Typically, hard rock mines have dedicated tire service equipment and personnel onsite. In contrast, the majority of aggregate quarries rely upon tire dealers to provide tire service, and many of those dealers don’t offer nitrogen. “A lot of rock quarries don’t even have air compressors where they can check the air pressure or inflate tires onsite,” Rowell says.

To increase the number of aggregate quarries adopting nitrogen inflation, Rowell says both aggregate operators and tire dealers must be educated that a tool like a nitrogen tire inflation system is a win-win for both parties. For example, savvy tire dealers could charge aggregate quarries wanting nitrogen inflation an extra fee in order to recoup the upfront cost of purchasing the system. This, at least, would allow aggregate quarries access to nitrogen through tire dealers.

But first, aggregate operators must be convinced that inflating their equipment tires with nitrogen is worth the extra cost, so they’ll then demand it. Even though the long-term benefits greatly outweigh the fractional cost of the nitrogen tire inflation system, Rowell says many aggregate operators decline the service as a way to meet their bottom lines.

“Typically, quarry managers only look at upfront costs,” he says. “They only think about what they have in the budget today, and they worry about what could happen in the future, later.”

But for many aggregate operators, the tire shortage has brought their future into the present. No longer when they get a flat, will a replacement tire be quickly on its way. Instead, they’re having to think ahead and find ways to conserve the tires they have.

“The future of nitrogen is growing,” Rowell says. “And hopefully, in the years to come, more and more aggregate operators will ask for nitrogen.”

By Troy Simpson: Article originally appeared in

• Pit and Quarry Magazine

, Dec 1, 2005

Comments are closed.