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Recycling tires and plastics with an ancient heating method

tire waste
Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Thermal decomposition is helping to green two major EU manufacturing industries.

For thousands of years, humans have converted wood into charcoal through a technique called . Now, Jean-Michel Douarre wants to use this age-old method for a modern purpose: turning old car tires into new ones.

Douarre, the head of research into at French tire maker Michelin, hopes pyrolysis will put his industry on a greener footing.

Clean carbon

Tires, which are made of rubber and petrochemicals, contain a lot of carbon. And producing tires currently involves fossil-fuel burning that releases into the atmosphere.

Pyrolysis is the high-temperature breakdown of materials without oxygen and, unlike incineration, uses thermal decomposition to convert them for reuse.

Scientists have learned how to harness this technique to make fuels, chemicals and materials from carbon-rich waste as well as from renewable biomass. And it fits perfectly into the EU's goal of a circular economy involving more recycling and less waste.

"In Europe, most end-of-life tires are collected, which is a good thing, but almost none of them are used to make raw materials for new tires," Douarre said.

He leads a research project that shows pyrolysis can turn old tires into a clean version of carbon black, a major tire ingredient.

This carbon-rich substance makes up 20% to 30% of an average tire and is usually derived from fossil fuels including oil. Carbon black gives the tires their color, prevents damage from ultraviolet light and helps make them durable.

Called BlackCycle, the four-year project run by Douarre is due to wrap up in June 2024.

Pyrolysis generates three products: a liquid, solid and gas. By adjusting the pyrolysis chamber's conditions—such as temperature and speed of heating—it's possible to control the amount and chemical composition of these products.

The BlackCycle team has found that it can tweak the process to generate large quantities of oil from the pyrolysis of old tires. The researchers used this oil, which is chemically similar to the fossil-fuel kind, to produce a high-quality type of carbon black.

"We produced several tons of carbon black," Douarre said.

Rolling on

The researchers have since used this carbon black to make a bus tire, which was tested for use on roads.

The prototype was found to have rolling resistance, levels of durability and other characteristics comparable with current tires.

But it's not just carbon black being produced.

"What we want to do in the recycling process is use everything that we produce," Douarre said.

For instance, the gas created by the pyrolysis of the tires is used as fuel to power the whole process, while any oil that isn't converted into carbon black can be used to make resins.

The hope is that, in the future, these too can be used in new tires.

Valuable waste

Europe generates around 3.5 million tons of used car tires a year, according to the European Tire and Rubber Manufacturers' Association.

At least 90% of these end-of-life tires are reused in some way. About 40% are incinerated for and around half are recycled.

Most recycled tire waste—70%—is ground down to produce rubber granules and powder, with much of this becoming artificial sports pitches and playground flooring.

The rest is incorporated into cement or used for civil engineering projects. For instance, whole tires can be used to build coastal erosion barriers while shredded tires are used in foundations for roads and railways.

Nonetheless, researchers and tire manufacturers are keen to produce higher-value products from tire waste.

Michelin, the world's biggest manufacturer of tires, wants to replace all raw materials in its products with sustainable substances by 2050, according to Douarre.

"Recycling tires is one of the ways to do this," he said.

Tires are a major source of microplastics pollution worldwide. The Pew Charitable Trusts said in a 2020 report that tire particles were responsible for almost four-fifths of microplastics in oceans.

Plastics push

Pyrolysis is also being increasingly deployed to recycle plastics.

Recycling plastics through pyrolysis is usually done at temperatures of around 400°C, so-called low-temperature pyrolysis. The resulting pyrolysis oils are then further processed to produce hydrocarbons.

Cranking up the pyrolysis temperature to more than 700°C increases the production of gases from the technique, according to Rebeca Yuste, a expert at Spain-based petrochemicals company Repsol.

This makes it possible to break down hard-to-recycle plastics and turn them into propane and ethene.

These gases, known as olefins, are the chemical building blocks of plastics and are usually produced from petrochemicals. Olefins from old plastics could be used to make new ones, greening another major manufacturing sector.

Yuste leads a project to demonstrate that this process can work at an industrial scale. Called Plastics2Olefins, the project is due to run for five years through May 2027.

It aims to design and develop a full-sized industrial demonstration plant for recycling plastics at a Repsol chemical plant in the Spanish municipality of Puertollano between Madrid and Seville.

The team has already built a smaller pilot plant.

The researchers will improve the technology at this site before scaling it up to the larger demonstration plant, which is expected to start operating in 2028.

"We are going to multiply the capacity by 100," said Yuste.

Slashing emissions

While in theory pyrolysis will work with any kind of plastic waste, in practice things aren't that simple.

"If we use very low-quality plastic waste or plastics that have contaminants, the quality of the final products is going to be worse," said Yuste.

Poor-quality or highly contaminated plastic will also reduce the proportion of pyrolysis gas produced compared with oils and solids, making the process less cost-effective.

"In the pilot plant, we are going to test different qualities of plastic waste to see what is the worst quality of plastic waste that we can feed into the process," said Yuste.

If achieved on an industrial scale, the high-temperature pyrolysis technique could result in 70% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than current plastic-recycling methods, according to Repsol.

The reasons: it would be possible to run the process using 100% renewable electricity and high-temperature pyrolysis is a much more efficient and less energy-intensive way to produce olefins than the low-temperature method.

Once up and running, the plant will be used to produce polyethylene and polypropylene, which are two of the most widely used plastics in the world and are found in products including bin bags, food packaging, disposable cups and bottle caps.

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Citation: Recycling tires and plastics with an ancient heating method (2024, January 30) retrieved 29 February 2024 from
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