11 February 2013

José Manuel Soto: "Turning tyres into ecological rubber"

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Successful research projects such a solution for recycling old tyres sometimes find it difficult to become profitable commercial products.

More than 3.3 million tonnes of used tyres were disposed in landfills in 2010, according to the European tyre & rubber manufacturers’ association. To remedy this issue, the EU funded ECO-RUBBER project aimed to find suitable means of recycling old tyres into an eco-friendly rubber powder that could be used in urban furniture products. José Manuel Soto is the technical director of Spanish rubber manufacturing company BERLÁ, based in Valladolid, and one of the project partners. He tells youris.com about progress towards commercialisation of the research more than one year after the project completion in 2011.

What was the purpose of the project? 
The aim of the project was to adapt the current rubber recycling process relying on old tyres by using an innovative process. This would involve turning tyres into a purified powder by a special grinding process, which eliminate metal and textile particles. Then, this purified rubber powder could be transformed into urban furniture products, such as bollards, jiggle bars and pavements, using what is known as sintering and vulcanising technologies.

Which case study did you focus on?
We chose to work on a bollard, because it could be compared with competitors products made with different materials. With this technology it is, however, possible to create other pieces too, as an alternative to applications to using virgin rubber, wood or concrete.  Ultimately, the proposed process could become an alternative for industrial lining, automotive parts, white line appliances and recreational or sports goods, but we are a long way from that.

What challenges did you encounter when applying this recycling technology into an industrial context? 
The project worked well in the laboratory but not on an industrial level. The rubber recycling process, which works without binders or external agents, makes the bollards more expensive to produce than conventional ones. In the laboratory, it is possible to create very fine pieces. But when you make a bollard industrially, it requires longer exposure to high heat and pressure conditions than predicted in the lab. This makes bollards of a thickness of more than 8 cm in the most robust parts capable of withstanding stresses and strains. This longer manufacturing process leads costs to skyrocket. It is very difficult for us to compete with cast iron bollards manufactured in low-cost-labour countries.

Are you still working to solve this issue?
Yes, we are trying to reduce the manufacturing time to make cheaper pieces. This would enable us to enter into the market. Unfortunately, progress is not happening at the same rhythm as during the research stage.

What would entice people to use this new alternative bollard?
If a motorcyclist or a biker falls on our bollard, it is not the same as hitting the rigid surface of a metal bollard. In our energy absorption tests, we showed that the elastic behaviour of the ECO-RUBBER bollards was much better in case of head injuries. These bollards were four times safer. But people are not aware of the potentials of such product yet. Our market is still fundamentally local. The higher price is a barrier to expand the market.

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