Almost everybody in WA will know a thing or two about mining truck tyres – namely that they are bloody big (often 4m in height and weighing more than 5,000kg) and great props to get your photo taken next to.
But that “super-sizedness” also contributes to a dilemma of what to do with them once they have reached end-of-life.
Using a process known as Thermal Vacuum Recovery (TVR), there could soon be a commercial scale option to turn those used tyres into something useful, in a very cyclical kind of way.
“It’s about converting the rubber into a material called carbon black,” Elastomers Australia General Manager Business Solutions Pat Caputo says.
“Controlled heat and pressure are ultimately the key processing ingredients, and the really good thing about carbon black is that it’s actually then used as a main ingredient to produce more rubber products.”
Of course it isn’t just tyres in which rubber is used in mining operations and it won’t just be tyres that TVR will be capable of treating. Conveyor belts, rubber track systems, wear liners and screen panels are other potential recycling targets.
Carbon black also won’t be the only useful material turned out by the process.
As a lot of natural rubber is included in the manufacture of tyres, a type of biofuel is produced and this can be used in a number of applications. Many rubber-based products include steel reinforcement, which can likewise be reclaimed.
The TVR technology also has an element of self-generation.
“It’s all done in a closed vacuum if you like, so there is a 100 per cent recovery rate,” Caputo explained.
“Some of the gases that are produced and then recovered as part of the process can then be used as an energy source for heating of the TVR and power generation. So in that way it’s kind of self-fueling.”
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Elastomers Australia’s core business involves providing mining clients with solutions in screen media, which are used to separate ores into different grades depending on particle size.
All up the company produces around 100,000 rubber screen panels each year – some destined for WA iron ore operations – and Caputo says there have been decades-long questions around what can be done with these products at end-of-life.
Now the answers might almost be here, with Novum Energy Australia optimistic about being able to build and commission new TVR processing facilities in a 12 to 18-month timeframe. Traditional mining centres like Karratha, Newman and Coolgardie loom as initial WA target locations.
In the meantime, Elastomers Australia is looking to start collecting and stockpiling feedstock.
Caputo says the reaction from industry to the concept has been extremely encouraging – and not only from existing Elastomers Australia clients.
“We’ve had a few companies that we don’t currently deal with reach out and show some interest,” he said.
“Over recent years we’ve been asked quite a bit about what we’re doing in this space – and we’ve previously made some small steps forwards in regards to how things can be treated a little differently and recovering some of the materials that were being used.
“But this is really groundbreaking technology. It’s very much in line with helping customers reduce their carbon footprint and recycle things in a more sustainable fashion.
“One of the challenges in the past would have been around how we extract each component separately – for example the steel and rubber and any other materials being recycled in the process.
“But this technology is able to manage that and also recover something that can be returned into a manufacturing process that produces the same product.”