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Elastomer powder modified thermoplastics (EPMT) - rubber residues processed into high quality plastics

Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft Zur Forderung Der Angewandten Forschung E.V. : 12 November, 2012  (Company News)
Rubber residues from vehicle tyres have always been able to be "downcycled" to floor coverings and safety crashpads. Now, for the first time, they can be processed into high-quality plastics. A new kind of environmentally-friendly material mix called EPMT makes this possible.
Elastomer powder modified thermoplastics (EPMT) - rubber residues processed into high quality plastics

Each year throughout the world, up to 22 million tonnes of rubber are processed and a large portion of it goes into the production of vehicle tyres. Once the products reach the end of their useful life, they typically land in the incinerator. In the best case, the waste rubber is recycled into secondary products. Ground to powder, the rubber residues can be found, for example, in the floor coverings used at sports arenas and playgrounds, and in doormats.

But until now, techniques for producing high-quality materials from these recyclables have not existed. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT in Oberhausen recently succeeded in optimizing the recycling of rubber waste materials - they have developed a material that can be processed into high-quality products, such as wheel and splashguard covers, handles, knobs and steerable castors.

The new plastic compounds are called elastomer powder modified thermoplastics (EPMT). They comprise rubber residues crushed into elastomer powder that are blended with thermoplastics. “In the first step, the rubber residues – that can be metre-long rubber pieces - are granulated to 3mm large particles. The particles are cooled with liquid nitrogen and then ground into elastomeric powders. This is then introduced to the melt-mix process with thermoplastics and additives. Here we use, for example, polypropylene as a thermoplastic material,” explains Dr Holger Wack, scientist at UMSICHT.

The EXIST Research Transfer project, sponsored by the Federal Ministry for Economics and Technology (BMWi), is exploring various recipes for new blends of materials that are already protected by patent and trademark rights.

Variable material properties

The compound stands out from a number of different perspectives. Crushing rubber waste is more environmentally-friendly and resource-efficient than producing new rubber products - an important aspect in view of the rising costs of energy and raw materials. “EPMT may contain up to 80% residual rubber; only 20% is made up by the thermoplastic,” says Wack. EPMT can be easily processed in injection moulding and extrusion machines, and in turn, these products are themselves recyclable. The physical and mechanical material properties of the substance, such as like elasticity, breaking strain and hardness, can be individually modified.

So far, three basic recipes have been developed that collectively can be processed on the large technical production machines. The researchers are capable of producing 100-350kg of EPMT per hour. Wack and his colleagues have founded Ruhr Compounds GmbH. In addition to the production and the sale of EPMT materials, this Fraunhofer spin-off offers custom-made service packages: “We determine which of the customer’s materials can be replaced by EPMT, develop  customised recipes and also take into account the settings required at our customers‘ industrial facilities,” says Wack.

The widest array of industries will benefit from the expertise of these professionals: processors of thermoplastic elastomers can obtain EPMT and further process it into products. Industrial companies whose work involves elastomers - such as  the industrial and construction sectors, or car-makers and athletics - could recycle these products, make EPMT from them, incorporate them into their existing products and thereby close the materials cycle.

Nike tests EPMT

In the “Re-use a Shoe” project, sports gear maker Nike has been collecting used sneakers for a while now, recycling their soles and under the label “Nike Grind”, reprocessing them as filler material for sports arenas and running track surfaces. EPMT enables Nike to place new products on the market. As one of its official promotional partners, “Tim Green Gifts” created  the first EPMT-based promotional articles under the “Nike Grind” brand, including frisbees, shoehorns and boomerangs. Discussions about using new EPMT compounds in the original portfolio, such as zippers, bag bases  and sports equipment, have also been initiated.

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