TUCKER, Ga.—If you´re going to start up a company, it always helps to have people with experience in charge. On that basis alone, Lehigh Technologies Inc. is off to a good start.
Dennis J. Gormley, chairman, president and CEO of Lehigh Technologies, is the former chairman, president and CEO of auto parts giant Federal-Mogul Corp. James B. Gray, Lehigh vice president of sales and marketing, is also well-known in the rubber industry, having been managing director of Tenneco Automotive Europe and president of Clevite Elastomers Inc.
Add to that Anthony M. Cialone, chief operating officer, a former waste management executive who developed Lehigh´s patented technology and proprietary manufacturing process; Patrick R. George, a veteran of the investment banking and software industries who is now Lehigh´s chief financial officer; and a board of directors that looks like "Who´s Who in the Rubber Industry."
After nearly three years of planning and the construction of a state-of-the-art production facility in Tucker, Lehigh Technologies is poised to offer high-tech, fine-mesh polymeric powders to tire and rubber product manufacturers.
The initial production capacity will be 100 million pounds annually when the Tucker plant is in full operation, the company´s executives said. But they expect demand to grow beyond that figure, mandating the construction of other facilities.
Lehigh specializes in rubber powders with particle sizes of 80 mesh, 140 mesh and 200 mesh, although it can customize the particle size to any customer´s specifications, finer even than 200 mesh, according to Gormley.
Particle size is the key to making recycled rubber a sought-after, high-value-added product, Gormley said.
"With a 5 or 10 mesh, you have a product for low-value-added applications, such as septic fields or running tracks," he said. "But when you get to 80 mesh, you can put up to 10 percent of that material back into tires. And that´s huge."
With the current prices of both synthetic and natural rubber, according to Gormley, tire manufacturers can save at least 20 cents a pound by using Lehigh´s 80 mesh powder, with no degradation whatever of tire quality. But when you get into the truly fine, talcum-like particles of 200 mesh, he said, the particles actually improve the qualities of such products as paints, coatings, sealants and plastics.
"We have two markets: One where our customers can save money and petroleum, and one where we improve the properties of the product," he said. "Whenever articles have been published about us, we´ve had potential customers calling us up, suggesting applications for our product that we hadn´t even thought of."
What Lehigh does
Gormley and Cialone met in 2003, after Cialone had been working for several years on his tire recycling process.
"Tony was involved in the waste management business, and through that he got into recycling," Gormley said. "He was deeply involved in the question of tires and what to do with them, and he came up with a technology that I thought was quite unique."
The key to Lehigh´s patented process, according to Cialone, is "reverse engineering." His view is previous rubber recycling companies have failed because they thought in terms of making a product, then trying to find a market for it. He turned the process inside-out, starting by trying to define what potential customers of recycled rubber really wanted, and then developing a process to give them that product.
"Once we defined what the customer wanted, we looked at processes other than what already existed in recycling," he said. "We did not come at the technology from the standpoint of the recycling and waste management industries, but from the pharmaceutical and coatings industries. We adapted technologies from those industries in ways that would suit rubber."
Lehigh doesn´t recycle whole tires, but uses scrap tire chips and other scrap rubber to make its fine rubber powders. Traditional scrap tire recyclers essentially are Lehigh´s chief suppliers, Cialone said, though the company also takes scrap from customers and other rubber product manufacturers.
The Lehigh technology involves an ultra-low-temperature process in which liquid nitrogen freezes the rubber to a temperature of -320°C, similar to the cryogenic method. At this point, the rubber becomes brittle like glass and is easily pulverized.
Unlike cryogenics, Lehigh doesn´t use standard grinding equipment. Instead, it fractures the rubber using fine milling processes developed in the pharmaceutical and other industries. The result, Cialone said, is a much higher quality product and vastly better control over uniformity of particle size.
"Just as important as milling fine particles is efficiency in screening those particles," he said. "There was a void in existing screening technology that we had to fill to meet customer specifications."
Lehigh uses a combination of traditional mechanical and innovative vacuum screening techniques to ensure particle consistency.
The company lab contains a particle analyzer and other screening equipment rarely found anywhere in the rubber industry, according to Koren Wah, lab manager at the Tucker plant. Lehigh is on track to receive its ISO 9001 and 14001 certifications this year, as well as other certifications which will allow it to screen all its material on-site, without resorting to outside laboratories, he said.
Besides product quality and consistency, Lehigh´s process ensures steady throughput and a guaranteed supply of fine powders for customers, according to the company.
Because of limited supply, the current market for fine rubber powders in North America is 15 million to 25 million pounds annually, whereas a major user would require 30 million pounds annually, a company fact sheet states.
Lehigh estimates that once the demand for fine powders is truly activated, total demand will exceed 1.7 billion pounds annually in North America and 3.4 billion pounds worldwide, for a global market value of $1.5 billion.
What Lehigh plans
The 83,000-sq.-ft. Lehigh plant in Tucker has a top annual capacity of more than 100 million pounds of rubber powder. George estimates the company will have contracts for at least that amount before the end of this year.
For that reason, the Naples, Fla.-based company is scouting locations for a second plant to go on-stream sometime next year. Eventually, Gormley said, Lehigh anticipates having six to eight facilities in the U.S. and about 30 worldwide.
The Tucker plant uses natural rubber and SBR as its raw materials, although future operations could be dedicated to EPDM, nitrile, polychloroprene and other rubbers depending on customer demand, Cialone said.
Lehigh has no environmental concerns regarding its operations, and doesn´t even require any special environmental permits, according to Gormley.
"The only thing that goes out of this plant is clean, pure nitrogen air," he said. "There´s black powder in the plant, to be sure, but it´s not carbon black."
Several of Lehigh´s earliest customers have been retreading companies that want the powders as an ingredient in tread rubber, Gormley said. He declined to name companies, because some of the contracts are pending, but claims they include several major names in the retreading industry.
The executives admit some reservations persist in the industry about recycled rubber powders—not just because of supply problems, but also because of skepticism recycled rubber can replace virgin rubber in a tire or rubber product. However, younger rubber executives accept recycled products more readily than their fathers did, they said.
"We´ve spoken to industry executives who said, ´I´ve heard about that, I´ve been there before, and I don´t want to go there again,´ " Gormley said. "If you´re going to make a change, there´s always some fear about it. If there´s no savings involved, it´s hard to motivate people to do something different."
Gray, meanwhile, is confident he can motivate the industry to make the switch to Lehigh´s product. "My job is to educate engineers who haven´t had experience in using powdered rubber," he said.