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Lehigh Technologies Forges Ahead in 'Closing the Loop' for Tires


The Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) forecasts that passenger, light truck and truck tire demand will rise nearly 2 percent in 2014 to reach 302 million units. Though no one knows just how many there actually are, there are many times more tires accumulating in dumps in every nation around the world – a festering, growing threat to human and environmental health and safety.

Lehigh Technologies is on a mission to “green” the lifecycle of synthetic and rubber tires. Using a proprietary “green chemistry” process, Lehigh replaces petroleum-based materials by recycling discarded tires and turning them into micronized rubber powders (MRPs) that can be used to manufacture a wide range of rubber and plastic products – all manner of vehicle/transportation tires included. The benefits are numerous and manifold, from reducing manufacturers' operating costs to helping conserve tropical forests and ecosystems, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and helping alleviate air, soil and water pollution associated with waste tire dumps.

On Sept. 3, Lehigh announced that it had raised another $8 million in support of its efforts to expand geographically and realize the milestones established in its technology road map. Joining with earlier venture capital investors including Index Ventures, Florida Gulfshore Capital, Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield & Byers, and Leaf Clean Energy, is Japan's JSR Corp., a $4 billion specialty chemicals company.

"Greening" the tire value chain

Lehigh Technologies aims to enhance economic, as well as environmental and social, sustainability in the global market for tires and other synthetic and natural rubber and plastic products. The Tucker, Georgia-based company has set its sights on seeing 1 billion new and retread tires manufactured via its high-tech recycling process on the roads.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has forecast that by 2035 the number of vehicles on the world's roads will more than double and exceed 1.7 billion. Most of that growth will come from China and other large, rapidly industrializing nations.

Dependent on a wide variety of situation-specific factors, it's difficult to come up with an average life for tires. As a rough guideline, experts put the number anywhere from 20,000-80,000 miles – roughly from as little as 1.5 to as many as almost eight years' worth of driving for the average American.

Recycling tires

Concerns about the multiple, growing threats discarded tires pose to human and environmental health and safety aren't new. In 2008, RideLust's Vito Rispi wrote:
“More than 240 million tires are thrown away each year in the United States. Fewer than 7 percent are recycled, 11 percent are burned for fuel, and 5 percent are exported. The remaining 78 percent are sent to landfills, stockpiled, or illegally dumped. That’s almost 190 million old tires a year wasted in this country alone.”

Lehigh's tire recycling process and MRPs address this issue head-on. As the company explains, its technology replaces petroleum-based synthetic and natural rubber raw materials to produce a wide range of sustainable consumer and industrial products. The MRP proces, the company elaborates, “transforms end-of-life tires and other post-industrial rubber into high-performance, lower cost, sustainable micronized rubber powders (MRP).”

Lehigh operates the world’s largest MRP production facility, capable of producing 140 million pounds of MRPs per year, according to management. Use of the company's MRPs extends to plastics, asphalt and construction materials.

Working with six of the world's ten largest tire manufacturers, more than 250 million discarded tires, and counting, have been manufactured using Lehigh's MRPs. In addition to the world's largest tire manufacturers, its customer base includes leading flooring manufacturers and their counterparts in construction materials, modular flooring and coatings.

In addition, Lehigh has invested in “best-in-class research and development facilities, where it works with customers to develop new and more advanced MRP formulations for high-value applications in the tire and rubber, plastics and asphalt industries, among others.”

Recycling and "green" chemistry

In effect, the “green” chemistry/sustainable materials company and its partners are closing the loop on the tire market life-cycle. As Lehigh management explains:
“These MRPs replace oil- and rubber-based feedstocks in a wide range of industrial and consumer applications, including high performance tires, consumer and industrial plastics, consumer goods, coatings and sealants and construction materials. We tailor our PolyDyne™ and MicroDyne™ MRPs to our customers’ needs to maximize benefits and optimize performance. We also offer our customers comprehensive Closed-Loop services.”

The $8 million of additional VC funding affords management the capital it needs to realize its strategic business plans. Moreover, Lehigh's commercial relationship with JSR is likely to develop beyond the provision of capital. Elaborated Lehigh Technologies' CEO, Dr. Alan Barton:
“Commercial sales of MRP have been growing rapidly- over the past few years alone, we’ve demonstrated annual growth rates of 30 percent. Furthermore, we have made significant inroads into markets outside of the United States.

“However, this latest round of financing will give the company additional resources to drive growth in Europe and Asia, eventually culminating in local manufacturing. JSR, a highly regarded leader in polymer technology, will play a key role in this process.”

A $4 billion, multinational specialty chemicals company, JSR's business operations and relationships are extensive, particularly across the world's manufacturing hub: the Asia-Pacific region.

“Under the concept of E2 initiative, JSR is continuously seeking opportunities to contribute to low carbon society through Materials Innovation,” added Koichi Kawasaki, JSR Corp. executive managing officer.

“Partnering in Lehigh’s growth and geographic expansion strategy is a great fit for JSR, as the company’s novel MRP technology offers our customer base a new material that brings a strong value proposition and sustainability benefits.”

Dubbed E2 for short, JSR's sustainability initiative consists of two inter-related programs: Eco-innovation and Energy Management. Via E2, JSR aims to create value by developing environmentally-friendly products, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions across its manufacturing plants.

Investing in and partnering with Lehigh will help JSR realize both these aims. Expanding use of Lehigh's MRPs holds out the promise of significantly enhancing environmental sustainability across the tire market value chain by boosting low recycling rates, as well as boosting manufacturers' bottom lines.

*Images credit: 1) Flickr/vagawi; 2) Modern Tire Dealer; 3) Lehigh Technologies

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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