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From rubber waste to black gold

The best sustainable business ideas are those which address the world’s biggest problems - and turn a healthy profit for its creators. Such ideas are few and far between but in Victoria one start-up thinks it’s found one.

Established in 2009, Green Distillation Technologies makes a bold claim – their revolutionary process, known as destructive distillation, can transform waste tyres into valuable high-performance diesel fuel as well as steel and carbon. 

If it achieves its potential, it could turn one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges into a major business opportunity.

"The potential for this business will still be there long after I am gone.” - Trevor Bailey

Growth and recognition has already come quickly. In 2015, it won the prestigious Edison award for innovation in the USA; the company is in talks with clients from around the world and is currently constructing the world’s first large tyre recycling plant, expected to open in Perth in 2018.

When the plant opens it will become the first place in the world capable of recycling the larger OTR tyres which, according to GDT director Trevor Bailey, would be transformational.

“Globally the ‘recycle’ rate for tyres, excluding those used as fuel in furnaces (which is not the best use of the stored energy) is around the 30 per cent mark,” he explains.

“In that sense, we are not a disruptive technology. If we add mining tyres into the mix, which to date have been omitted from other forms of ‘recycling’, then the potential for this business will still be there long after I am gone.”

A worldwide problem

Waste tyres are an enormous and growing environmental hazard. Globally, humans produce approximately one billion waste tyres annually. 

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Source: GDT

Although governments around the world are introducing schemes and regulations to encourage recycling, the majority go to landfill which create spectacles like that seen on the outskirts of Kuwait City.

Here you find one of the few man-made constructions visible from space. Vast craters have been carved out of the landscape and filled with more than seven million tyres. Seen from orbit, the entire area is marked by ugly black patches.

Many tyres are burned for fuel or recycled into products such as carpet underlay or matting for playgrounds, but they don’t address the central issue.

The new product is rubber which sooner or later has to go somewhere. GDT’s process does something different, it breaks down 100 per cent of the tyres, with no emissions into highly valuable by products.

Steel can be sold back to car manufacturers at a high price and carbon has many potential uses in industry. But it’s the diesel which has really caught the eye.

The process is a closely guarded secret.

“It’s loosely based in pyrolysis, in that it is the application of heat to a substance in the absence of air,” Bailey explains.

“We achieve strict control over the atmospheric and temperature parameters so that the target of the process, the carbon atom, behaves in a controlled and predictable manner. If I told you any more…”

Revolutionary

The technology was developed by Denis Randall, GDT’s Chief Technology officer. He had spent the past 35 years experimenting and had been using it to recycle agricultural waste. 

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Randall. Source: GDT

Bailey and his partners believed that wouldn’t give them the volume they needed so they sought to re-focus the method for waste tyres.

The result is manufactured, stable oil with no water and very little free oxygen.

“Its Cetane index is similar to diesel,” Bailey adds, “which means it can be used directly in a diesel engine except for two characteristics: it lacks lubricity and would not meet Euro 5 emission criteria.”

However, tests at the Queensland University of Technology discovered that if used in a 20 per cent diesel blend, it significantly reduced emissions of harmful gasses.

“We found a 30 per cent reduction in nitrogen oxide which contributes to photochemical smog, and lower particle mass which means fewer problems for emission treatment systems,” says Farhad Hossein, a PHD student who worked on the test.

“We also found the performance of the oil blends were consistent through all of the blends and will continue this testing in subsequent research.”

Refined

The technology is ideal for diesel engines and can be refined further into aviation fuel – one of GDT’s biggest clients is the Australian Airforce.

The potential is huge. a large tyre which weighs 3.5 tonnes yields 1,500 litres of oil, 1.5 tonnes of carbon and the steel reinforcing which goes back to the car manufacturers. 

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Source: GDT

It’s an enormous business opportunity but one of GDT’s biggest challenges comes from the fact the product is so revolutionary.

“I imagine Wilbur and Orville [Wright, the first men to fly] encountered similar scepticism,” he says. “Why hasn’t it been done before? How come the Americans/Japanese/Germans didn’t do it first?

“I have seen it all before. Others have tried and failed, what makes this so special? On top of that, Government regulators want an ‘expert’ opinion. How can there be an expert other than our own Denis?”

“It’s never been done before. Frustrations are everywhere. In Australia, where Ned Kelly is a hero, the high-net worth individuals to whom you have to go in search of funding want 90 per cent of the business for 10 per cent of the value.”

Hossein says disposing of old tyres in an environmentally-friendly way is a universal nightmare for authorities.

“Stockpiles of used tyres around the world are a health hazard, as demonstrated by the recent Broadmeadows fire in Victoria which was difficult to put out and generated huge amounts of toxic smoke,” he says.

“In tropical areas old tyres are a breeding ground for mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus, dengue fever and malaria.”

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Source: GDT

The future for GDT looks bright – it is fielding interest around the world. For all the challenges, every step forward feels like an even bigger win.

“Every time you see oil pouring into the tank you look around for the champagne bottle. Every run we score is extremely satisfying,” Bailey says. “We’re in the 70s now - the century is just a matter of patience and perseverance.” 

Tom Cropper is a freelance business journalist

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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