END-OF-LIFE TYRES THE TARGET AS MTAQ INVESTS IN RECYCLING COMPANY

It is estimated that approximately 1.5 billion tyres reach the end of their useable life every year across the globe. Australia is responsible for just a small slice of that number, about 23 million tyres, but whichever number you choose to focus on, the figure is astonishing.

What exactly is to be done with this extraordinary mass of rubber, steel, assorted fabrics and chemicals has been a headscratcher for manufacturers, the wider automotive industry, governments, and waste management companies for years. After all, tyres are, by the nature of the job they are designed to do, extremely tough and durable and, for all intents and purposes, non-degradable.

Dumping them in landfills or stockpiles was never really a solution – they take up a huge amount of space, can catch fire and belch noxious smoke into the atmosphere, and become breeding grounds for all manner of pests and disease– and it can be argued that repurposing tyres by breaking them down for use in, for example, road or playground surfacing, is just shifting them from one form to another.

The holy grail for true tyre recycling is surely to take a whole tyre, break it down into the really useful components from which it is made and sell those back into their respective market.

And that is exactly what Australian company Green Distillation Technologies Corporation (GDTC) can do.

The company has perfected a recycling method that uses a unique development of a process called destructive distillation to extract oil, carbon and steel from a tyre. The tyre does not have to be broken down or shredded before this process is undertaken and, rather remarkably, the process is free of emissions.

It is extremely clever, innovative stuff.

Originally created and developed by GDTC’s now Chief Technical Officer Denis Randall more than 10 years ago as a way to recycle agricultural waste, the concept proved easily transferable to rubber and tyres and this smart technology has been recognised by organisations across the world, winning the 2015 bronze medal at the global Edison Awards and being nominated in the Environmental Achievement of the Year category at this year’s Tire Technology International Awards.

Earlier this year, MTA Queensland took the decision to invest in the company and the talents of those driving GDTC. For the Association, that decision demonstrates the importance it puts in supporting innovative solutions to problems that beset the automotive industry – and end-of-life tyres certainly fit into that category.

“This investment exemplifies how seriously we take waste management in our sector and taking the lead and investing in a global solution for end-of-life tyres is a responsible move as an industry leader and a very exciting investment opportunity,” said Dr Brett Dale, MTA Queensland Group CEO.

For Trevor Bayley, Chief Operating Officer of GDTC, the MTA Queensland investment marks an important step as the company moves forward in its development and in its growth both home and abroad.

“It is extremely significant,” he said. “MTA Queensland is an industry association that has recognised the need to get involved in this facet of the industry and is the first one to do so. Their investment is recognition of the fact that they represent an industry in which the disposal of tyres must be responsibly managed, and they have made the determination that our method of disposal and removal from the stream is appropriate.

“For GDTC, the investment is very important, a great step for us, and we are grateful for the interest. To have the support of an organisation with the industry clout that MTA Queensland has is very important, and it is certainly a nice name to have on the share register.”

HOW DOES IT WORK?

GTDC’s destructive distillation method involves the application of heat to break down a complete tyre into steel, carbon and oil.

The chemistry is a bit complicated, and the exact method the company has developed is somewhat secret, but it works thanks to the fact that almost all the elements that make up a tyre – the rubber, fillers, fabrics and so on – are carbon-based. The tyres are placed whole into a sealed chamber in which a vacuum is created, and heat is applied to cause a chemical reaction through which the tyre is broken down and carbon and hydrogen atoms are released as a vapour. The liberated carbon atoms attach to the hydrogen atoms to form hydrocarbons and this vapour is then condensed into oil. What is left once this process has taken place and no more oil can be created is the steel from the carcass of the tyre and almost pure carbon – an element that is used, in various forms, in the manufacture of a huge variety of products.

With the entire process taking place in a vacuum, with about three per cent of the reclaimed oil reused as the heat source, and with various methods utilised to retain unburnt oil and particulate matter in the system, any exhaust gas emitted from a GDTC recycling plant is so far below the requirements demanded by environmental protection agencies that the facility is essentially self-sustaining and free of emissions.

And the products reclaimed by the GDTC process – the steel, oil and carbon – are of a quality that makes them of real value in their respective markets.

“The high-tensile steel is unchanged as the temperatures don’t get hot enough to have any impact upon it,” said Mr Bayley. “If we were in a country that manufactured tyres, there would be a market for it to go directly back into that industry. However, in Australia it goes back into the pot and gets mixed up with all the other scrap steel, scrap iron and so on.

“The oil is what is called fuel oil. A large percentage, about 70 per cent, is in the diesel range which means it is refinable. The other 30 per cent is various other fractions such as solvents and kerosene. As a refinery feed stock, this oil is very valuable and there are multiple other uses for it which we are just beginning to explore.”

The carbon that is produced, which is about 90 per cent pure, has incredible potential, and GDTC aims to use it in some high-value and high-growth markets, including in the production of batteries.

The company has an agreement with New Zealand business CarbonScape that has developed a process of producing graphite from a variety of carbon sources. The carbon produced by GDTC is compatible with this process and being able to convert this carbon to graphite opens a market for GDTC that includes the production of lithium ion batteries in which graphite is an integral component.  Lithium ion batteries are the source of power for mobile phones, laptop computers, digital cameras and just about any other mobile device you care to mention. They are also the battery type of choice in electric vehicles and that, as we all know, is a sector of the automotive industry that will expand dramatically in the coming years.

THE NUMBERS

With 23 million tyres needing to be disposed of each year in Australia, there is an almost limitless supply of ‘fuel’ to feed GDTC facilities and each chamber at the company’s plants will put in a lot of work.

One chamber can process approximately 210kg of tyres per hour and with each plant proposed to comprise of 12 such chambers, about 2.5 tonnes of tyres can be processed per hour. All told, each GDTC plant will be able to process more than 19,000 tonnes per year, and just 10 plants would be able to recycle 40 per cent of Australia’s glut of end-of-life tyres.

What can be consumed by each plant is impressive, but what can be produced is equally so. GDTC claims each typical 10kg car tyre will yield 4 litres of oil, 4kg of carbon, and 2kg of steel, while a 70kg truck tyre will provide 27 litres of oil, 28kg of carbon and 15kg of steel. A 4-tonne oversize mining dump truck tyre will yield 1.6 tonnes of carbon, 0.8 tonne of steel and 1500 litres of oil. Those are impressive numbers.

Build out those numbers to nations with a far larger tyre stockpile to dispose of, and the potential growth of an environmentally friendly, efficient and productive process such as GDTC’s is easy to grasp. And that potential has already been recognised by partners in both the US and South Africa. In the US, the number of end-of-life tyres reaches gigantic numbers – more than 250 million per year – and GDTC has an agreement in place there that provides funding of up the US$150 million to build several plants.

“If we look at the US, 30 plants represent 18 per cent of the available tyre market,” said Mr Bayley. “And they are much less risk-averse there. The people we are talking to are looking at building 15 plants across the country, they have the first site chosen and 60,000 tonnes of tyres organised and ready to go. They have markets for the oil and the steel and are very close to securing a market for the carbon. In South Africa too, they are ready to go and are looking at building three plants straight away. We’ll look to start work there probably before the middle of the year.”

Those plants will join the company’s current working facility in Warren, NSW; a government-approved plant to be built at Toowoomba; and several more proposed sites across the nation.

For MTA Queensland, an investment in technology that was developed here in Australia, and that tackles a serious waste management problem while also generating valuable products makes a lot of sense. And it should be remembered that regardless of the fantastical array of vehicles that emerge from the automotive industry’s current technological upheaval, they will still run on tyres and those tyres will still wear down and need to be disposed of once they have lived out their usefulness.

End-of-life tyres are going to be a long-term problem, and MTA Queensland is proud to be involved in supporting an innovative, profitable and environmentally friendly solution.

9 April 2020