A new recycling center may be born in Momo, in the province of Novara. In detail, this is the recovery of worn tires and semi-processing waste, reusable thanks to a system engineered by the company Electronic Systems. The company has in fact patented a processing procedure that allows waste materials to be recovered and reused in production plants, giving them a high degree of purity. Electronic Systems has already been awarded twice by the European Commission for its achievements in this field.
At the end of November, the company also obtained a 5 million euro loan, received from an important Italian banking institution, to carry out the study of this innovative solution. Electronic Systems developed its plant in 2019: the aforementioned system is able to integrate processes that were previously distinct, i.e. the recovery of rubber from tires at the end of their life, the devulcanization of the rubber obtained and the direct reintegration into production.
Global production of new tires is around 1.6 billion per year, so the same number of old tires are discarded every year. These, known as end-of-life tires (ELTs), pose serious environmental problems because they are made from several extremely durable materials that do not break easily. In the past, almost all ELTs ended up in landfills or were burned; today, fortunately, this is no longer the case, at least in a large part of Europe. Today only around 8% of European ELTs end up in landfills and around 2 million tonnes are recycled. However, recycling ELTs and other forms of rubber is anything but simple. In typical processes, tires are ground to separate the steel from the rubber, which is crumbled. However, as the tire rubber is vulcanized and bonded to synthetic fabrics, the reclaimed material cannot replace virgin rubber. Instead, it is used in low-quality by-products, such as artificial turf.
With the project Rew-tyres, the rubber scrap is treated in a gear pump and in a mix-extruder, to produce homogeneous rubber sheets. These can be reused directly in production. The process eliminates the energy-hungry preheating step through a combination of compactness, gear design and lubrication system. Afterwards, the rubber ends up in a rotating mill which produces small chips. A terahertz sensor, an ultra-fast laser that generates non-ionizing submillimeter waves, monitors the depth of the rubber in real time. These tiny chips of recovered rubber are processed in a kneading machine, with additives. The strong mechanical action breaks the bonds with the sulfur, the result of vulcanization, producing a compound that can replace virgin rubber in consumer products, such as shoes and watch straps.
The European Commission has entered the project Rew-tyres in the Horizon 2020 funded research program, and later opened access to the LIFE program, which co-finances the best environmental sustainability projects. For Electronic Systems, which was involved in the construction of thickness gauges and process control for the rubber-plastic industry, it was a historic moment: today the Momo plant now employs about 100 people and there could be opportunities for further expansions, if the system is refined and mass-produced.