Industry observers have long downplayed the commercial potential for pyrolysis and similar processes that use oxygenless heating chambers to melt down tires into resalable byproducts. Yet that hasn't deterred numerous small companies and entrepreneurs from continually pursuing their dreams. ``(Pyrolysis) is inherently sound but there is no commercially viable markets for the byproducts,'' said Michael Blumenthal, executive director of the Scrap Tire Management Council.
Pyrolysis ``is non-competitive on a price or quality basis,'' he added. ``But we will continue to hear about it. Promoters will continue to promote it. Dreamers will continue to dream it. There is no commercially viable operation in this country, in this hemisphere or in Europe.''
There are reportedly a few pyrolysis plants operating in South Korea, Mr. Blumenthal said, but the market dynamics are radically different in that country than in the U.S.
However, pyrolysis advocates vigorously disagree with detractors and each claims to have a version of the process that will be profitable. It's just a matter of getting a commercial plant up and running.
And there is a long list of pyrolysis visionaries, among them: Unique Tire Recycling Inc., which claims to have an operating, commercially viable plant in Canada and intends to market its patentedsystem; Thermal Systems Inc., which has so much confidence in the viability of its pyrolysis system that it wants to operate its own plants and is looking to open its first site in New York; and Environmental Scrap Tire Recovery Systems Inc., which will begin testing its mobile proprietary unit, the first of several the company hopes to operate at future tire collection transfer stations.
``The skeptics are people who have seen failures in the past,'' commented Jim Alexander, president of Unique Tire. ``Now it is working. It is a very specific answer to the scrap tire program.''
His claims are based on what he calls a commercially viable pyrolysis plant Unique Tire developed in Kamloops, British Columbia.
That operation has been in continuous production since December, processing about 1,400 tires daily.
And the company has customers buying the carbon black char, oil and steel byproducts. ``All the produced materials can sell—it is a genuine recycling loop,'' he said.
``We did a lot of market research to find customers,'' said Mr. Alexander. The oil byproduct, which has to go to a refinery to extract the sulfur contents, was initially a tough sell but the carbon char ``got easy acceptance,'' according to Mr. Alexander. Buyers of Unique's carbon black mainly use it in the manufacturing of brake linings.
Mr. Alexander said the company has been able to sell the carbonchar for 12 cents (U.S.) a pound, the steel for 3 cents a pound andthe oil at a 15-percent discount off the market price for crude oil.
Yet Mr. Alexander admits revenues from the byproducts have yet to offset the cost of processing—a major criticism of pyrolysis. ``You do need tipping fees or other compensation,'' Mr. Alexander said.
Unique hopes to get that compensation from British Columbia's Financial Incentives for Recycling Scrap Tires Program. Having identified markets for its byproducts, the company may be eligible for recycling credits, anticipated to be about $1 per tire.
And Mr. Alexander has a response to critics who say companies shouldn't depend on government subsidies—``My attitude is, we provide a waste management service. Why shouldn't we be compensated?''
But waste management isn't the company's ambition. ``We plan to market the systems, rather than operate plants,'' Mr. Alexander said. It took more than two years and $6 million (Canadian) to get the Kamloops plant up and running, he said.
The company only got involved in pyrolysis when a couple of inventors from Arkansas approached the firm about financing the development of their system.
``Our direction is marketing the technology on a global basis,'' Mr. Alexander said. The Kamloops plant will serve as a research-and-development plant for Unique's patented process.
The company plans to market larger systems that can process 2,400 tires per day and the key selling point, according to Mr. Alexander, is that potential customers can visit the Kamloops facility and actually see the system operating.
While Unique will try to sell its pyrolysis technology, Thermal Systems of Wayland, N.Y., plans to keep and profit from its own technology.
``We believe it's economically viable. If it wasn't, we wouldn't do it,'' said George Caley, Thermal Systems vice president, adding, ``If it works, it's not for sale.''
The company has spent two years testing the byproducts of a technology developed over a 15-year period at the University of Missouri, and now is trying to set up it first full-scale tire recycling facility in the U.S.
Thermal Systems has a prototype plant in Missouri and has sold a system in China. But Thermal Systems is so confident that its process is profitable, it won't sell the technology to anyone else, preferring instead to profit from the process itself, according to Mr. Caley.
Yet the company's plans last year to set up its pyrolysis operation in a former Union Carbide Corp. plant in Niagara, N.Y., were dashed in late December due to ``politics,'' according to Mr. Caley. A Niagara County official claimed residents weren't receptive to the idea of a tire processing operation in their community.
Thermal Systems had secured approval for $18 million in tax-exempt bonds for the project but now has decided to drop its plans in Niagara and look for a site in Batavia, N.Y.
Thermal's plant would process 3.5 million tires annually, according to Mr. Caley, and the technology has the ability to extract class N660 carbon black, a higher grade than most secondary filler material, from tires.
Thermal Systems heats tires at temperatures as high as 800 degrees Fahrenheit and up to 40 percent of the fuel used to heat the ovens will come from gas produced by the melted tires.
Meanwhile in Dresden, Ohio, Environmental Scrap Tire Recovery Systems Inc., which bought the assets of the defunct National Tire Services Inc., is applying for permission from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to test-fire a proprietary pyrolysis system it has constructed on the dump site of about 2 million tires.
President Glenn Kanaga is familiar with the controversy over pyrolysis, but he contends his small start-up company has done its research and found a pyrolysis system design ``with enough merit.''
The pyrolysis system, independently developed and awaiting a patent, is smaller, more compact and costs less to construct than conventional units—features, he believes, will make the process cost-efficient.
Once the test burn is conducted, the company plans to test the quality of the carbon char byproduct ``to see if it meets what customers are looking for.''
``As long as we meet their parameters, then we have markets,'' Mr. Kanaga said. He has found companies interested in using the carbon char byproduct as fuel. There is the option of further processing the char into lab-quality carbon black, but he admits that is too costly. The low-grade oil and scrap metal can be sold to refineries and recyclers, and a percentage of the oil will be used to fuel the pyrolysis system, Mr. Kanaga said.
The Dresden site has one pilot unit with a second unit planned. Eventually Mr. Kanaga wants to set up three or four units on the site, each processing about 1,000 to 1,200 tires daily.
Once the pyrolysis system ``becomes reality,'' he said, the portable pyrolysis units will be set up at former NTS transfer stations the company hopes to someday reopen once sufficient routes and customer bases are established.
Mr. Kanaga said his company chose pyrolysis as a recycling method because ``us as our own end-user makes it fiscally promising. End-user costs can get so high and so limited.''
He noted that other markets, such as crumb rubber processing and road-fill applications are not as prosperous as the industry had hoped.
Yet the promise of pyrolysis hasn't clouded Environmental's business sense—the company is still investigating other processes and markets for scrap tires. ``We're not just going to put all our eggs in one basket. We have alternatives to look at,'' Mr. Kanaga said.