RICHLAND, Wash.-Researchers at Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratory are testing ``sulfur-loving'' bacteria that may be able to take a bite out of the waste tire problem. Bob Romine, a research scientist at Battelle, is studying the results of adding Sulfolobus, a strain of bacteria that thrives in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, to powdered rubber made from waste tires.
The bacteria is ``diophilic''-meaning that it either derives energy from ``eating'' sulfur or uses sulfur as a part of its energy-gathering process.
When added to powdered rubber in a bioreactor, the bacteria modifies the carbon-sulfur bonds, giving the particles a more reactive surface, Mr. Romine said. The new, more reactive compound can then be added to virgin rubber to make new tires and other rubber products.
New rubber can contain up to 15 percent of the recycled compound without sacrificing quality, Mr. Romine said.
``It has equal or better performance and we have seen an increase in grain-strength without any appreciable loss in elasticity,'' he said.
Mr. Romine has, so far, tested 50-pound batches in a 200-liter bioreactor. He hopes to commercialize the process within two years.
``The results are very encouraging,'' he said. ``We just need to see the same results out of large-scale production.''
The U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Air Force are funding the research.