SACRAMENTO, Calif.—It´s been more than 10 years since William Coe heard something that sparked an idea to develop technology he claims can move rubberized asphalt light years forward.
At a Long-Term Pavement Planning program the president of Ecostar Science & Technology Inc. attended, the head of the Federal Highway Administration told the 10 state engineers in attendance that things were going well. A Wisconsin state engineer disagreed.
The engineer said of 2,200 test sites put down by the long-term paving program, only 800 survived and those sites offered little information about the relationship between longevity and value.
Further, he said, while the group had learned more about why certain materials failed, there was a need for a "paradigm shift" of new materials to come up with a way to do the job better and cheaper.
"That stuck in my mind," Coe said. "I thought at that time that developing a new polymer was critical to enhancing the value of asphalt. Going to that one meeting and hearing that one gentleman talk about the need for a paradigm shift ignited a vision that said I think there´s a chance if we stay on task that we can significantly improve the performance of asphalt."
Now, in 2005, Coe and his company are nearly ready to begin commercializing a phase reactor integrated molecular electromagnetic system he said induces a change in ground tire rubber from 10-30 mesh feedstock into a functional nanocomposite.
Coe and Ecostar are completing work on a production platform reactor that will be capable of processing two tons an hour of permutated ground tire rubber. The portable platform should be ready by late October or early November.
The firm is looking for joint venture partners to use the technology, which Coe said can be used in rubberized asphalt, roofing membranes and other applications.
"We´re able to take tires to particles so small if you put one on a sheet of paper you couldn´t see it, and if you put 100 end to end it would cover the width of a period," he said.
Background at Lockheed
Coe was hired as a consultant by Lockheed Corp. in 1988 to help the company deal with ground-water contamination problems threatening the firm´s ability to bid on government contracts.
"I looked at the plant practices for the company worldwide and devised a method that would essentially rewrite their specifications and go to outside industry to look for coatings and adhesives that could be delivered to us in certified clean form," Coe said.
The company got no takers. The industry basically told Lockheed it wasn´t prepared to give the firm the assurances it sought—even if it was willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on the materials. So Lockheed decided to make its own adhesives and paints, forming a unit to make roofing and waterproofing materials for all of the company´s 150 million square feet of buildings around the world.
Coe then signed on as an employee of Lockheed, working as chief engineer of its elastomer manufacturing unit. About this time in the early 1990s, the "peace dividend" meant Lockheed was seeing a big drop in military revenues, and its participation in the space shuttle program was winding down.
So the firm started Ecostar Systems to develop a non-military line of business, and Coe worked on this venture along with a wide range of scientists from the space and defense programs. During this period, the team worked on using electromagnetic energy to heat water more efficiently—a project that would later come in handy in the rubberized asphalt arena.
Additional study found that water was more of a capacitor than once thought. That led to the theory that if you could make water mimic chemicals—even if just for a few seconds—you could reduce the cost of making monomers to make polymers to modify asphalt.
"So the jump from efficiently heating water to producing chemicals that would help make better adhesives, it would never have happened if you didn´t have one group that had very broad capability under one roof," he said. "It´s sort of the peanut butter and chocolate sort of thing. Who would have thought to put them together?"
Making it cost-competitive
As some of these Lockheed non-military programs were starting to blossom into commercial ventures, most of the projects were labeled non-core after the 1995 merger with Martin Marietta created Lockheed Martin Corp.
In 1997, Lockheed Martin granted Coe the assets of Ecostar in exchange for a royalty stream the company owed him for licensing technology he had created. Coe took some of the people from the group, moved Ecostar´s offices to Sacramento and sold coatings and specialty chemicals to the adhesives industry as a way to give the firm stable cash flow.
All along, though, Ecostar continued work on what it called the P2 Ground Tire Rubber reactor. Coe was willing to wait until the technology was ready.
"There´s a philosophy in my heart that says, ´When you´ve got something that really makes a difference, bring it to market,´ " he said.
The breakthrough came last year when Ecostar discovered how to use electromagnetic energy and water to disintegrate the ground tire rubber into nanocomposites at a total cost of 13 cents a pound. The company now can make the system work at production volumes.
Feedback has been positive on the 100 or so test sites—from parking lots to roads around Sacramento—where material made with this process was used to modify the asphalt.
Ezra Musa, technical support administrator for Blacklidge Emulsions Inc., a producer of rubber-modified asphalt binders, is impressed after seeing and testing the technology.
"When I first heard about it, I had doubts like anybody else," Musa said. "After I saw the unit, I think they have the proper technology at the proper time for industry. This gives better properties than any product I´ve seen so far."
Coe insists he´s not looking to push anyone out of the industry, which is why Ecostar is looking for joint venture partners. "This ought to just fold right in," he said. "This will not only bring the cost down, but it eliminates half the machinery needed to process crumb rubber."