‘Jet Engine With Teeth’ Chews Old Rubber Into New Products

Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

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Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Every year, Americans discard about 300 million tires. That’s about a third of the 1 billion thrown out worldwide. About half of those are burned for fuel, which is just slightly better than landfilling. The rest end up in playgrounds, mulch for gardens or in berms along highways.

Lehigh Technologies wants America’s scrap rubber. The nine-year-old company has raised more than $50 million for processors that collect it, freeze it and shatter it into bits. ``Think of it as a jet engine with teeth,'' said Chief Executive Officer Alan Barton, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard University.

Barton’s company has developed a process that lowers the material’s temperature to negative-300 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes it brittle like glass. It's then fed into a specially designed mill -- a turbine that spins at more than 2,000 revolutions per minute.

The rubber blows out as a fine powder that can be manufactured into tires, asphalt, car parts, running shoes and more. Each pound of micronized rubber saves almost a gallon of oil and results in half the carbon emissions of a similar synthetically produced product, according to the company's website.

Lehigh has produced enough micronized rubber since its plant opened in late 2006 to produce about 140 million tires from recycled rubber. The company's goal is 1 billion tires, which is achievable within three to five years, Barton said.

Lehigh, which is closely held, today announced it completed a $16 million funding round with investments from Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Index Ventures and NGP Energy Technology Partners. ``One never says never, but our plan is that this will be our last fund raise'' before becoming self-sustaining, Barton said.

The company is attractive to clean-technology investors because, unlike many solar, wind or biofuel investments, Lehigh has never required federal subsidies, Barton said.

The company plans to use some of its new capital over the next six to nine months to add about 10 jobs to its current staff of 70. Remaining funds will be used for further research and development and commercial expansion in Europe and in Asia, where about 10 percent of the company's products are exported.

The company acquires about 30 to 40 percent of the rubber scrap and tires it uses for free, and the rest at ``very, very low cost,'' Barton said. ``Even if we're wildly successful, the amount of end-of-life rubber material out there, even in the U.S., is enormous.''

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