In Asia, the selling point is sustainability. In Europe and the Americas, safety and savings are the main motivators. Whatever the reason, the market for tiny rubber particles made from ground-up tires is growing domestically and gaining traction internationally.
Metro Atlanta-based Lehigh Technologies is on the leading edge in providing what is known in the industry as “micronized rubber powder,” or MRP, which ends up looking like black flour.
“We provide sustainable raw materials from discarded tires for a wide range of different industries, including tires, construction, plastics, asphalt and specialty chemical suppliers,” says CEO Alan Barton, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard University. “We take end-of-life tires and turn them into a rubber powder that is a raw material for a variety of end uses.”
One of the world’s largest auto markets, the United States is also awash in anywhere from 100 million to 300 million discarded tires, depending on which estimate you use. The Biocycle Guide to Maximum Recycling guesses only 23 percent of an estimated 242 million discarded tires are recycled, while other sources put the total number higher.
Lehigh’s process is the third step in the recycling chain. After a tire is discarded and slated for recycling, it undergoes primary processing to rip and shred the rubber and remove the steel. A second process cuts the rubber into small chips. Lehigh freezes them with liquid nitrogen, turning them into a glass-like substance that is milled and ground by spinning blade, then warmed back up. The resulting powder is either shipped to the end user or further processed to a customer’s specifications.
What differentiates Tucker-based Lehigh from other recyclers is its proprietary cryogenic manufacturing process, which turns the former tires into bits that are virtually metal and fiber free and thinner than a human hair. Six out of the top global tire companies use its products, Dr. Barton says. More than 250 million tires have been manufactured using MRPs since 2007.
‘We Have to Be Local’
The world is taking note. In 2009, Lehigh dipped its toe into the Japanese market. Now in a partnership with San Francisco-based Connell Brothers, one of the largest chemical and material distributors in Asia, Lehigh is in five Asia-Pacific countries with more plans for growth.
The company entered into a similar distribution agreement in Latin America in late 2012 with Andes Chemical Corp., a provider of specialty chemicals and logistic solutions that has helped Lehigh tap Mexico and Brazil.
“Andes is committed to bringing innovative solutions to our customers, especially sustainable solutions that do not sacrifice quality, cost or performance,” Andes President Fernando Espinosa said in a press release announcing the deal, adding that he believes there are “significant growth opportunities” for Lehigh’s technology.
In partnership with HERA Holding, a Navarra, Spain-based waste-to-resource company, Lehigh provides MRP for the tire, consumer and industrial plastics and coatings industries in Europe.
“Our goal in Europe this past year or so is to bring our customers along and do marketing development,” says Dr. Barton. “We have to be local in terms of manufacturing to each country’s regulations, customer service and rapid response.”
Lehigh in November made advisory board appointments that reflected its aim to diversify geographically while developing new products. Jim MacMaster, a former executive at Yokohama Tire Corp. North America, has expertise and connections globally, while polymer scientist Adel Halasa was listed on 300 patents while working in research and development for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
20 Percent Exports, 30-40 Percent Growth
Founded in 2003 and manufacturing since 2006, about 20 percent of Lehigh’s product is exported, mostly throughout Asia.
“It’s not at all difficult selling to the international market, but we are a young company and we are now just starting to expand globally,” says Dr. Barton, a native of England. “Overseas they are more interested in the sustainable aspect of our product than they are in the U.S., especially in Japan and Asia, and of course, everyone is looking for cost reductions.”
Given that Lehigh is a privately held company that is backed by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Index Ventures, NGP Energy Technology Partners and Leaf Clean Energy Co., Dr. Barton wouldn’t disclose revenues. However, he said that the company has been growing 30 to 40 percent each year expects that trajectory to continue for several years.
“We are being successful because of our geographic expansion and because of our technology,” says Dr. Barton. “Many people try to find good uses for waste tire materials. Clearly it is an environmental problem. We’re different in that we all have a chemical industry mindset. We understand the complicated formulations that we’re putting together and know how to mimic and then adjust the formulation to show a company why they should give us a try.”
On top of that, Lehigh’s success comes from a “very simple value proposition,” says Dr. Barton.
“We have a product that will help lower costs, offers an equal or better performance and is green. What better message is there?”