By Rivka Borochov
They get tossed into landfill and pollute our earth. Except for getting ground into rubber pellets or turned into biofuel, vulcanized rubber tires past their prime weren’t good for much -- until now. The Israeli company Levgum
can turn them into fully reusable rubber for anything from conveyor belts to tools, shoe soles, car mats or even new tires.
So refined is the company’s mechanical and chemical process for reverse engineering of the constituents of tire rubber and other processed rubber, that tire manufacturers from Western countries have okayed it for use as raw material in new tires.
Turning old rubber into new
Imagine baking a cake, and then taking all the constituents -- the flour, water, eggs, baking powder -- and returning them into their original form. This is the basis for the Levgum technology, now operating on a licensing model with country-specific deals in India, Greece, Romania, Spain, Italy, Turkey, the United States and Canada.
“We are moving forward, and are leading the world in de-vulcanization,” says Ran Zamir, the CEO of Levgum.
Back in 1843 an American inventor named Charles Goodyear discovered that by removing the sulfur from rubber and then heating it, the rubber would stay elastic but it would be winter- and waterproof. This is vulcanization.
Levgum has found a way to undo the chemical change in the rubber after the process. According to information provided by the company, this is done at room temperature and does not involve dangerous chemicals, nor does it produce hazardous waste. The trick? Well, that’s the secret.
Levgum’s patents are based on technology developed by Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel.
The chemicals they use are off-the-shelf products.
The process, though it does require an energy input, results in a rubber that costs about half as much to make as virgin rubber. It can be used in a mixture with virgin rubber, depending on need. Up to 70 percent of Levgum’s reconstituted rubber is used in new products that are now on the market.
One place you can find the end result is in Walmart, in the form of a garden material used to aerate flowerbeds.
Turning a profit
Levgum is responsible for putting at least a few hundred thousand tons of old rubber back into circulation. The company’s technology can process any kind of waste rubber, for instance from old mattresses or conveyor belts, says Zamir.
“The company is working well and making a living out of its revenues, and for the first time last year distributed dividends to our shareholders,” Zamir reports. “We keep on being active, including in the tire market in India and in Europe, with a major tire company.
“But they are not the licensees,” he points out. “The chain goes like this: A licensee takes rubber, granulates it and makes it into workable rubber again -- much like you take a cake, make crumbs out of it and then we give you a patent to bring back the flour, eggs and oil.”
Founded in 1998, the company is based in Gedera and has three employees with outsourced staff. Since Israel doesn’t have a rubber industry, this isn’t the best country in which to open a plant. The de-vulcanization should be done close to where the source material will be reused.
Levgum recently started working with a large tire company in Finland. Now it is seeking new licensees in Germany, Poland and France, who can expect to recoup their investment within two years.
“These are the places that contain the largest rubber consumers in Europe,” Zamir explains. “Then we will focus on the Far East in Korea, China and Japan in the second stage.”
Licensing deals are one per country, and are based on purchasing power and environmental commitment.
“What we are looking for are corporations which are financially stable and are already in the industry. It’s best if they are in the recycling [business] but they can also be one of those companies that are producing rubber goods,” says Zamir.