Tyres are abundant, have relatively short life cycles and are a very difficult product to deal with at the end of their usage period. Estimates suggest that over 55 million tyres are currently disposed of every year in the UK, entering the waste stream. 32% of those are turned into powder, while 25% are burned to produce energy – not the highest value opportunities in terms of materials or energy. Fortunately, a new research project, taking place at Imperial College London and including collaborators Iceland Tyres, JW Froehlich, EWD Recycling and HSSMi, may have a technological answer to maximise tyre value at end of life.
The barrier for current processes is that they do not separate rubber from either the steel or the fabric. This means that the ground “crumb” at the end of the process cannot be used to make new tyres, but can only be re-purposed in low quality applications.
The technology currently being developed at Imperial College London, called Water Accelerated Technology for En-Tyre Recycling (WATER), is an innovation that uses Ultra High Pressure Water (UPHW) to break down and create three distinct resources from old tyres – high grade rubber, steel and fabric.
All three can then be used to their maximum value, but rubber is particularly important for tyres. It represents 30% of the cost of a tyre and if old products can be recycled in such a way that allows rubber to be re-utilised, material costs could be significantly reduced.
The technology is still very much at a research laboratory stage, but the main role of the collaborators is to work with Imperial College London to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity and bring “WATER” to commercial scale.