Why small companies will lead the second chemical revolution

The Gunther Report

Cradle to Cradle

Why small companies will lead the second chemical revolution

“If we’ve made it once already, why should we make it again?”

Alan Barton, the chief executive officer of Lehigh Technologies, is talking about tires, but his question could be asked about almost any product.

In a world of limited resources and rising energy costs, why not turn everything that we no longer need or want into something else?

This is the aspirational goal of what’s called cradle-to-cradle design. It’s easy to talk about and hard to do, as I was reminded last week when talking with Barton about Lehigh, a privately-held, venture-backed company that turns worn out tires into what it calls “micronized rubber powders,” or MRPs, that are then used in new tires as well as shipping pallets, asphalt roads and waterproofing, among other things.

I learned a lot about tires during our interview. Roughly speaking, about one tire per person is discarded every year in the U.S. or western Europe. That’s a lot -- nearly 300 million in the U.S. They used to be discarded under bridges or in trash dumps until governments and the tire industry set up recycling and collection systems. Now, most are burned for fuel, often in paper mills or in cement kilns, with an emissions profile similar to coal. Others are ground up for construction materials, mulch, roads or sports surfaces, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association. Some, of course, still wind up in dumps.

Barton is certain we can do better. Tires, it turns out, are made of highly engineering materials, a mix of synthetic and natural rubber, as well as fiber, textile and steel cord.

“Burning or burying molecules we’ve already made is not a solution,” he told me. “It’s a problem.”

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Based in Tucker, Ga., not far from Atlanta, Lehigh has been working to find better uses for old tires for nearly 10 years. The Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins invested in 2008, and Barton was brought on at CEO soon after. Since 2009, he says, the company has grown by 30 to 50 percent a year. Now it sells its MRPs -- micronized rubber powders that are as small as 50 microns -- to five of the world’s 10 biggest tire companies.

The company has built a hi-tech plant that can process up to about 140 million pounds of tires and post-industrial waste. The rubber is ground up, steel is removed by magnets and vacuums, and then a cryogenic process uses liquid nitrogen to super-cool the bits of rubber so that they can be crushed into tiny bits. “Some powders are fine. Ours are finer,” the company says.

All of this has environmental benefits, according to the company. Every pound of Lehigh’s MRPs saves nearly a gallon of oil, about 10kWh of energy versus traditional alternatives, and nearly half the CO2 of traditional alternatives. More important from a business standpoint, Lehigh’s MRPs cost less than using virgin materials.

“Ultimately green chemistry will only be adopted if it delivers lower cost,” Barton says.

But despite the cost advantage of MRPs and their environmental benefits, Lehigh remains a small company. Its revenues are “less than tens of millions of dollars,” Barton told me, without being more specific/ Only about half of the capacity of its plant is being utilized. That’s largely because tires are so highly-engineered that the tire companies can take years to decide whether to use new inputs. Lehigh’s MRPs have found their way into more than 150 million tires, so far, accounting for up to 6 percent of their content -- but remember, about 300 million tires are discarded every year in the US.

Still, Barton sees big trends -- rising population, rising demand for energy, rising oil prices, rising levels of waste -- that will gradually lead the industrial economy into what he calls a “second chemical revolution.” Eventually, he says, petrochemicals will give way to infinite cycles of use of existing materials, sustainable production of new chemicals and only the most efficient use of existing carbon sources.

This green chemistry revolution will be led, for the most part, by small companies like Lehigh -- he also mentioned Amyris, Kior, Renmatix and Genomatica as industry disruptors – because the big chemical companies have too much invested in the status quo.

“Big industry either wants it go away or sees it as too long-term,” Barton says. It’s long-term for sure. Let’s hope it’s not going away.

Photo of discarded tires in Michigan dump provided by Bonita R. Cheshier via Shutterstock.com.