The smell of a burning tire is unforgettably putrid, but so far recycling technology has been unable to resurrect dead wheels. Millions and millions get discarded every year. Now a Malaysian startup says they have an answer.
Tires are a combination of natural rubber and petroleum products, and when they're at the end of their useful lives, if they are recycled, they're usually ground into tiny pieces. Those scraps are used for construction, civil engineering and burned for fuel. Some facilities, like one in Colorado, squash old tires together to make bales.
But processing an old tire back into a new one remains extremely difficult. The production process alters the materials' properties, making them hard to reclaim. So far, tire recycling hasn't been able to produce significant amounts of affordable, high-performance compounds. Sekhar Research Innovations (SRI) is a startup based in the Malaysian city Petaling Jaya. They say their patent-pending technological process can devulcanize rubber from whole scrap tires, creating a compound that can be used to make new tires, retread old ones, and make automotive parts.
The technology can work at high volumes and requires very little energy, says SRI's business development manager Anthony Umann. "Ours is the first closed-loop rubber recycling solution that can match the volume requirements of rubber manufacturing."
This fall, consulting firm Frost and Sullivan gave the company a technology innovation of the year award for their tire recycling process. "Large-scale implementation of SRI's recycling technology could ultimately lead to greener, ecofriendly cars on our roads," the firm stated. Currently the company is in the process of commercializing its process and plans to open a production facility in Malaysia.
SRI isn't alone, though. Goodyear has long been working on devulcanizing rubber, patenting a solvent-based process (PDF) in 1999 to reclaim rubber. Back then, the process was still in the lab, though. Currently SRI says it is road-testing tires containing 14 percent of their own recycled compound. With a ridiculous volume of discarded tires out there, we should be recyling them on a large scale.
I hope that advanced devulcanization does succeed, inspiring more people to get into tire recycling technology. Tires are piling up as I write this, and nothing says failure like one that's burning.
Photo: A light truck tire contains 14 percent of SRI's recycled compound. Credit: Sekhar Research Innovations.