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Scrap tires tread new ground as powder

  • Story Highlights

  • About a quarter of scrap tires are left in landfills each year, according to the EPA
  • One company is grounding old tires up into fine particles for use in other products
  • The plant can grind out up to 100 million pounds of powder per year
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By Diane Hawkins-Cox
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(CNN) -- What do you see when you come across a big tire dump?

After the tire scraps are frozen with liquid nitrogen, they are ground into fine particles.

One company pulverizes old tires into fine grains to use in other products.

An eyesore? A nursery for mosquitoes? Potential for a headline-grabbing, months-long tire fire?

Tony Cialone sees "the nation's newest raw material."

Cialone is founder of Lehigh Technologies, a Naples, Florida, company that pulverizes rubber from used tires and factory scrap into powder as fine as talc.

The powder can be used in manufacturing products that would benefit from the durability of rubber, such as longer-lasting paint, UV-resistant plastics and more elastic sealants.

"What makes a tire so difficult to dispose of -- it doesn't want to break down, it lasts forever ... it's the same type of attributes we can bring to new products," Cialone says.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that about a quarter of scrap tires are left in landfills each year. The rest are used as fuel, retreaded or recycled for other projects.

The powder from Cialone's business also can be used in manufacturing new tires. Lehigh Technologies Chief Financial Officer Patrick George says that the rising prices for oil-based synthetic rubber and natural rubber are an incentive for companies to re-use rubber.

Several years ago, while working in the business of recycling newspapers, bottles and cans, Cialone was asked to find a use for unwanted tires.

Cialone says he talked with potential customers of recycled rubber to determine what they would need. Ultrafine particles, in large volume, was the answer. So he ended up in Germany at a company that did precision-grinding of pharmaceuticals for time-release capsules.

"I walked in with my bag of rubber and they threw me out," Cialone recalls. But they invited him back, ran the rubber through their process, and produced the powder Cialone was looking for. Cialone bought the company, and in 2006 put that process to work at a plant in suburban Atlanta.

The process works like this: Lehigh brings in scrap rubber from tire manufacturers and rubber chips from tire recyclers who have already removed the steel and fiber.

The rubber is sliced and diced, then frozen with liquid nitrogen to make it extremely brittle. Then it's shaken, crushed, cut and ground to various fine sizes for various needs. Several companies are testing out the powder in their products.

"We have a variety of customers, everyone from customers who manufacture tires, to customers who manufacture automotive parts like wheel wells, or bumpers, or paints and coatings, companies that are making rubberized flat bed inner liners, to companies that are using it for paints for home use, or backing to carpet underlayment," Cialone says.

The plant can grind out up to 100 million pounds of powder per year. The company is planning to build an additional facility in 2008.

Pulverizing rubber is not new, says Mike Blumenthal, senior technical director for the Rubber Manufacturers Association, a trade group. But Lehigh is grinding the powder finer than other companies.

"Lehigh could have an impact if they are successful because they will open up new opportunities that up to now have not been available," Blumenthal says.

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