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Increased consumption of rubber is outpacing supply, thus resulting in shortages. One way of countering this is by recycling tyres to obtain crumb rubber, a practice that is becoming a preferred option due its sustainability, says Angelica Buan. As a result, more suppliers are also rolling out reclaimed rubber from end-of-life tyres.
Rubber output from Asia, home of the world’s major rubber producing countries, namely, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Cambodia, should be enough to cover the global requirement for rubber and ensure a stable supply of the commodity.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. While the region’s rubber production accounts for nearly 93% of the global supply, it only caters to 57% of the global demand for the commodity, according to the Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries (ANRPC).
There has been an unsteady stream of rubber supply worldwide, which is being remedied in various ways. For example, India, the world’s third largest consumer of rubber, is increasing its import of rubber by as much as 38%, to compensate the shortage.
The Rubber Board of India says that the gap between local production and consumption of rubber is widening. Total production during the January- April period of the current financial year was 723,000 tonnes, while consumption was 811,110 tonnes, leaving a deficit of 88,110 tonnes.
Tyres a main user of rubber
The surge in automobile demand is also a reason for the shortage of rubber supply. Research firm Freedonia, in its World Tires’ study says that the Asia Pacific region will account for two-thirds of total global growth for tyres, expected to reach 2.9 billion units until 2017.
Thus, the popular usage of commercial vehicle radial tyres and growing demand in the fastdeveloping economies like China and India is also triggering a supply-consumption imbalance.
Natural rubber is also vulnerable to the effects of climate change, population growth, and economic developments. This situation is cascading to final goods, specifically the tyre sector.
Today, a large percentage of the world’s scrap tyres is incinerated in cement kilns for tyre-derived fuel, disposed of in landfills or utilised in civil engineering filling operations.
However, this end use of a valuable resource prohibits the beneficial recovery for the replacement of new virgin material. Numerous scientific studies and life cycle assessments have demonstrated that recycling used tyres, compared to incineration for tyrederived fuel and civil engineering filling operations, dramatically reduces greenhouse gas emissions, acidification and fossil fuel demand.
Asian countries step up recycling efforts
China, a large consumer of rubber, is pushing a comprehensive utilisation of its waste rubber policy, as part of its 11th five-year agenda, according to the Ministry of Energy Saving and Comprehensive Utilisation Department.
It produces a huge bulk of waste rubber, especially from tyres, according to the China Rubber Industry Association (CRIA). Thus, the country’s recycling market is among the most vigorous in the world, expected to reach nearly US$156 billion by 2018, says BCC Research.
Since the country lacks rubber resources, it also relies on reclaimed rubber as a solution. The country’s edge is in having the technology to produce rubber, as well as tyre shredding at room temperature.
China has put the recycling industry high on its development agenda for the next decade. Increasing environmental concerns and governmental regulation will forsee growth in this market over the near term, adds BCC.
Thailand also produces waste tyres amounting to 600,000 tonnes and reclaims rubber from this resource, according to a National Science and Technology Development Agency-sponsored paper presented to the Faculty of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2013.
It says that the reclaimed rubber, which is economically and environmentally viable, can be reused independently to produce rubber mats, rubber sheets, and rubber tubing. It can also be used as an additive for new rubber products, like new tyres.
Another large rubber consumer, India, is reshaping its views on recycling. While tyre recycling is not unknown in India, only now are automated processes being used to achieve outputs of 99.99% pure granulate.
Pitching new technologies
The focus on innovations such as the European Union’s DRIVE4EU project, a demonstration project aimed at the development of the production chain of natural rubber and inulin from Russian dandelions, will take considerable time to develop due to the high costs of R&D. Coordinated by Wageningen UR, the aim of the project is to allow the EU to become less dependent on the import of natural rubber and at the same time to respond to the threat of a global rubber shortage.
While the research might not see light of day soon, there are firms that are actively engaged in the augmenting of the availability of the material, by reclaiming rubber waste.
Polyurethane and recycled rubber products manufacturer Accella Performance Materials (formerly Dash Multi-Corp) has recently acquired two firms, RTH Processing and RDT Manufacturing, allowing it to become the only manufacturer that is fully vertically integrated as it now produces its own recycled tyre crumb. US-based Accella makes its products in ten plants in various countries around the world.
Meanwhile, Danish firm Genan, which claims it is the world’s largest tyre recycler in the world, has opened a US$140 million facility in Houston, US, said to be the largest of its kind in the world, with a capability of processing 100,000 tonnes of used tyres/ year, about a third of all the used tyres in Texas.
Houston is the first manufacturing location launched by Genan in the US, in an effort to capture 10% of the American recycled tyre market. The company’s strategic expansion plans include a network of four new plants to be built across the US in the coming years. In April, Genan opened a 70,000 tonne/year-facility in France, its fifth in Europe. It is cooperating with the French tyre collection company Aliapur, which is partly owned by large, international tyre manufacturers.
Yet another US firm, Lehigh Technologies, which makes micronised rubber powder (MRP) from end-oflife tyres and other post-industrial rubber, is building its second facility in Europe. It is cooperating with Spanish waste-to-resource company HERA to cater to the region.
Lehigh is already operating a facility in Atlanta, US, which yields 70,000 tonnes/year, and is also looking into expanding in Asia since it has an already established market for MRP in the region for tyre makers, particularly in Japan, Southeast Asia and Australia. Lehigh says that it is targeting to push its Asian business growth above 30% year-on-year.
Lehigh‘s proprietary cryogenic turbo mill technology transforms crumb rubber material into micron-scale rubber powders of various sizes, including 80 mesh and down to 300 mesh. Unlike other technologies, Lehigh says its MRP is virtually metal and fibre-free, enabling its use in a wider range of products including high-performance tyres, plastics, coatings and roofing systems. The company claims that to date, more than 250 million tyres have been manufactured using Lehigh’s MRP.
Other suppliers jump on the bandwagon
Meanwhile, Titan International, through its subsidiary, Titan Tire Reclamation, plans to set up a reclaiming unit in Canada. It will be building a pyrolysis unit on 10 acres of land to reclaim rubber, carbon black (which Titan will be using for its own tyre production) and steel from off-the-road tyres and conveyor belts, employing a system developed by Green Carbon. With a capacity to process 44,000 tonnes/year of rubber, the facility is expected to start in 2015. The Green Carbon system uses 75% gas from tyres in a special reactor. Each tyre produces an estimated 500 gallons of oil, 1,800 kg of carbon black, and 900 kg of steel.
Another Canadian innovation, hatched by the University of Waterloo, is start-up firm Tyromer with its rubber devulcanisation technology. Countries such as Croatia, Hungary, Spain, Russia, and Turkey are soon to use the technology, when licences are available. The company granted its first licence in France in 2013.
French tyre maker Michelin also launched its tyre recycling project early this year to mechanically and chemically obtain rubber from used tyres. It is designed to develop two uses for used tyres. The first, TREC Regeneration, involves regenerating rubber compounds to make new tyres, while the second, TREC Alcohol, will enable the production of a chemical intermediate needed to synthesise raw materials used in tyre manufacturing. The alcohol derived from used tyres will be included in the BioButterfly butadiene production project alongside biomass alcohol from such sources as sugar, wood and agricultural waste.
For the TREC Regeneration mechanical technology, French industrial company SDTech and Protéus, a subsidiary of speciality chemicals producer PCAS Group, are working with Michelin. The TREC Alcohol is a collaborative effort between Michelin, the Alternative Energies & Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) of France and Proteus.
TREC has an allotted budget of EUR51 million, extending over eight years, and an additional EUR13.3 million for both Michelin and SDTech courtesy of France’s Agency for the Environment and Energy Management (ADEME).
In light of the growth forecasts for the global tyre market, demand for raw materials will increase considerably in the coming decades. As a result, the deployment of new solutions for using used tyres comes at a particularly good time.
By reincorporating recycled materials from used tyres in new tyres on an industrial scale, the new technologies will allow for a circular economy in synergy with existing channels