Originally, Lehigh Technologies LLC wanted to recycle rubber back to the rubber industry, but it is finding that the plastics industry is providing a better bet.
The manufacturer of powders made from recycled rubber opened its first plant in Tucker, Ga., in January with a plan to use the equivalent of 8 million rubber tires. The powders, which are predominantly 80 mesh and smaller, are cost-efficient when compared with carbon black.
``We had planned the business around the rubber industry, but I have to admit that plastics is now the fastest-growing part of our business,'' Jim Gray, vice president of sales and marketing, said at NPE in Chicago.
The company is finding that injection molders and extrusion companies are using the rubber powder as a performance filler in engineered plastics for industrial and consumer products.
The powders offer impressive characteristics for many industries, said Mike Grubb, who recently was named director of plastics and specialty polymers.
Some companies are finding that the material does well in thermoplastic elastomer applications, adding increases in tensile strength, elongation and reducing friction, Grubb noted.
Another area the firm may target is reinforced plastics, where the powdered recycled rubber can improve impact resistence.
Grubb said one customer, which he would not disclose, plans to use the powders as part of a 100 percent-recycled pencil.
Lehigh, based in Naples, Fla., is led by a management group seasoned in the rubber and tire industry. Dennis Gormley is chairman and chief executive officer.
Gray said Lehigh needs a supply of liquid nitrogen as well as a major customer market near its plants, but it already is considering sites for another U.S. plant by the end of 2007. The firm also is looking at future plants, possibly in Brazil, Asia and Europe.
Company officials said each new facility will have capacity to produce more than 100 million pounds annually. They estimate that the North American powder demand potential is more than 1.7 billion pounds a year.
The fine rubber powders are engineered from waste rubber using a cryogenic process. One advantage to the process, according to Lehigh, is that cryogenics creates a low-moisture raw material.