Pyrolysis Oil – A possibility the UK is shying away from?

Pyrolysis Oil in the UK market continues to remain untapped, undeveloped and unaccounted for in legislation, investment and potential whilst countries around the world continue to use this innovative technology to curb their tyre wastage problem. Why can the UK not follow suit?

Tyre problem:

As more miles are driven and society becomes more mobile, the safe and environmentally considered disposal of tyres is likely to only become more, not less, of a problem. As of 2014 the level of traffic on the roads has increased seven-fold since 1950, with circa 700 billion miles being driven within the year, and clearly all of this mileage equates to a huge volume of tyres being used (roughly 300 million in the USA per year). Waste tyres pose huge risks to society; although difficult to alight, once ablaze they can reach very extreme temperatures and become incredibly challenging to put out, they can become a habitat for unwanted pests and vermin due to their geometry and their ability to retain stagnant water, their low density profile means they take up a large amount of space in landfill sites for as long as a century and, frankly, are a wasted opportunity for a material which contains value and re-use potential. Current outlets: Comparable with the likes of RDF, the disposal of tyres has become a topical and significant conversation. Markets have however developed for the disposal of tyres whereby in the US in 2011 just over 80% of the 330m tyres used were responsibly ‘re-homed,’ proving that with existing technologies the problem can be eroded, but not completely eradicated. Outlets range from engineering grade solutions (PAS108), to granulating the rubber to mould into children’s playgrounds and for equestrian surfaces and Tyre Derived Fuels (TDF). Alternatively, exporting the material to other countries around the world also proves to be an effective option. Export routes to India and Pakistan still remain in place and act as a channel for end-of-life-tyres (ELT) to be recycled or used as TDF (often in cement kilns) in these development hungry economies. Such options can often be less sensitive to, and hence overcome, the inconsistent feedstock (because of, for example, tyre brands, conditions, usage) which producers of new products from ELT are often faced with. Sadly though, a significant enough proportion of the material still ends up in landfill, being burnt illegally or being criminally dumped and this is a problem that is mirrored in the UK with such practices have been reported as being “industrial” in nature and scale. As the UK seeks to move towards a ‘Circular Economy’, the recovery of the tyres is a critical component. Pyrolysis:

Pyrolysis makes for a viable option for a rubber based feedstock because it breaks its key factors down into reusable products and overcomes many of the barriers associated with other methods of disposal. Because tyres are vulcanised and are rigorously designed to withstand the harsh treatment they are put through over their lifespans, they command a highly selective disposal remit. The pyrolysis process works by heating the tyres, to around 400 degrees Celsius, in a vacuum so they reach a “gummy” consistency before being broken down into the following components: oil, gas, steel and carbon black char. As the tyres are never ignited, these materials are then harvestable and much of the original product recoverable. The medium viscosity oil by-product contains a calorific value which in turn commands a monetary value to be used in the manufacturer of chemicals or upgraded (or blended with) into more ‘mainstream’ fuels. The exact specification of the gas output depends on the feedstock’s composition, the temperature of heating, the pressure applied to the reaction etc., but fundamentally contains a calorific value which can be re-inserted into the pyrolysis process to aid in its process and to be used for other heating purposes. However, it does contain sulphur which has its own environmental considerations. In order to overcome this, the oil is required to go through a de-vulcanisation process which adds additional layers of cost and complication to reaching a marketable product. With further treatment (oil and ash removal processing) of the remaining material, carbon black/char is the residual product. This high-quality carbon black product’s main end uses include pigmentation in pastes and inks, strengthening of rubber, additives in plastics and in UV protection. These properties can be applied in a range of different contexts and for which the market is relatively large and continuously growing. Finally, the steel wire produced contains a marketable value immediately. This product, subject to the wire’s condition and any impurities, can be sold directly to the market, steel refineries etc. Simply, each of the 4 major products derived from this process produce marketable, commercial and viable products which with, often minimal, further processing can have their value enhanced and their demand raised. UK Market: As with any new piece of technology, adequate investment is required to ‘get it off the ground’. The UK market has struggled to secure sufficient levels of inbound investment to be able to build the plants and ensure the scale required to facilitate economies of scale is achieved. An article by clearly identifies and highlights the problem. This particular site in Middlesbrough, expected to be one of the largest plants of its kind with a key focus on developing a high-quality carbon black product, has been entirely underwritten by Metso (the international machinery provider and developer) and despite this commitment, the UK market more broadly suffers in its ability to raise the required investment in this technology and its scale demands. Challenges also remain with the classification of the pyrolysis oil from a legislative perspective. The UK’s Environment Agency has yet to classify the by-product into a specific waste/fuel category and as a consequence makes the ‘commoditisation’ of such a product incredibly challenging because it simply isn’t marketable. For the UK market, it may lead to a lack of growth and downward pressure on the development of this emerging technology where, perhaps, the benefits are yet to have been fully unleashed. Conclusion: Simply put, pyrolysis is a viable option for the disposal of tyres but is faced with a number of challenges to make it commercially sustainable. A large component as to the feasibility of this success, arguably, is underpinned by the Government’s support to how easy it is to operate within this market. No classification of the product simply means no direct route to market and the Government dictates this. At present, not a single standalone and profitable operation exists and therefore vertical integration with existing fuel channels may be a suitable option, at least in the short term. The ability to blend or upgrade the pyrolysis oil product may add the critical level of value that is required to be able to make it a commercially viable product. It will be interesting to observe how such developments may change how this product is received by both the market and legislators. OCI’s view: OCI is supportive of the potential that pyrolysis presents. Having observed and interacted with a range of recycling options for tyre products, this technology provides an innovative and resourceful opportunity. Regrettably, at present, the UK economic and political stances stifles the ability for entry and operation in this market in a financially viable manner. Because the recycling industry isn’t fully supported by the UK Government, it means that the major domestic option is to pay the high costs of landfill or otherwise employee the relatively cheaper alternative of exporting overseas. For the UK recycled tyre wider market, it means that the feedstock required to bring this technology to fruition is constrained or the UK disposal option leaves a problematic legacy in the ground. This is in stark contrast to European markets where the funds required to support domestic recycling operations are internalised within the cost of sale to the consumer and means that the adequate level of investment is in place. Having worked extensively to pioneer the export of tyres to the Indian subcontinent, OCI has a sound commercial understanding of the rules, regulations and requirements to operate in this market, thus we are able to offer consultative services for establishing a presence in the market in a range of different capacities, namely the exploration of pyrolysis solutions and export/trading opportunities. OCI is also able to provide extensive and consistent supplies of UK and EU sourced feedstock material, suitable for pyrolysis and/or more traditional fuel sources. This has been the critical part of the business for almost a decade and OCI are able to deal with every tyre rubber based product, from granules to pyrolysis oil to steel wire. Further information can be found on our website and contact details are located below. Web: Email: Telephone: +44 (0) 203 137 7326