HOUSTON-Gaia Technologies Inc. has found a valuable raw material in old tires-and has been using the ground up material as the principal ingredient in a new type of irrigation pipe that is gaining acceptance in the agriculture industry. Yet the Houston firm doesn't consider itself a tire recycler. It's in the irrigation business-and ground tire rubber just happens to be the ideal raw material for its products.
For the past two years, Gaia has been using crumb rubber as a major raw material for its Subsurface Dispersal System-rubber piping laid underground to irrigate farms, commercial landscaping and sports turfs.
The technology was invented several years earlier, but Gaia, which bought the patent in 1991, has been developing and improving on the system at its Dallas plant for distribution into the marketplace, according to Gaia President Henry Sullivan.
The buried pipe, made of two-thirds ground rubber and one-third plastic binder, has numerous minute holes that allow water to ``weep'' through the pipe walls out to the roots of crops.
Subsurface drip-irrigation systems are becoming an attractive alternative to surface and sprinkler irrigation practices on farms and vineyards because it eliminates surface evaporation and reduces weed growth and maintenance.
Most subsurface irrigation pipes are made of plastic, but Gaia found crumb rubber provides ideal porous properties for its pipes, Mr. Sullivan said.
The main selling point for such a system is that it conserves water-a limited resource in some areas. Gaia, also the name of the Greek goddess of earth, markets the system in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, Central America and South America.
But despite Gaia's consumption of crumb rubber, which it purchases from scrap tire processors in the U.S., the company doesn't market itself as a tire recycler, according to Mr. Sullivan.
``We're not doing this to recycle tires. We're doing this to irrigate agriculture-and recycled rubber is just our raw material,'' Mr. Sullivan said.
``We say we're in the irrigation industry, not the recycling industry.''
Water savings is a big selling point for its system. The fact the company is participating in the recycling of scrap tires is a secondary marketing benefit, according to Mr. Sullivan.
In addition to its main product, Gaia produces crumb rubber sheet material of varying thickness which it sells to other manufacturers-such as Jordan Specialty of Brooklyn, N.Y., which makes art portfolios and supplies with the recycled material.
Gaia has been achieving some break-even months lately and expects to turn a profit this year, according to Mr. Sullivan. In the meantime, the company is considering building additional manufacturing plants in California and overseas.
The company also is developing other sizes of its rubber pipe system for various applications and creating tubing for airation systems for agriculture.