A Norwegian company is turning worn-out tires into oil

Estimates suggest that a billion tires reach their end of life every year.
Ameya Paleja
Turning old tires into oil.jpg

Did you know that on average, a tire lasts about 20,000 to 40,000 miles (32,000 to 64,000 km), or three to ten years? Environmentally conscious users can sometimes retread their worn-out tires but will have to give up on the tires after a few more years when the tires reach their end.

Since tire changes are recommended every 20,000 to 40,000 miles (32,000 to 64,000 km), an average car could see four or more sets of tires throughout its lifetime. Estimates suggest that a billion tires reach their end of life every year, and this number is expected to soar to five billion by the end of the decade.

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Currently, as much as 41 percent of these tires end up in landfills, where they take anywhere between five to eight decades to decompose. However, the process is also space-consuming, since the tires have a lot of voids and can leach dangerous toxins into groundwater. Worse still, they become a fire risk.

Recycling tires is a relatively new concept, but it can help conserve land and prevent toxic substances from leaching out. Norway-based Wastefront is one company working in this area — they convert tires into the oil. Recently, the company teamed up with another company to develop a catalyst for its production process.

Interesting Engineering, spoke to Wastefront CEO Vianney Valès about how the company carries out this process and its plans to recycle tires around the globe.

A Norwegian company is turning worn-out tires into oil
Vianney Vales, the CEO of Wastefront

Interesting Engineering: Wastefront is a relatively young company; how did it all begin? Why is the company called Wastefront? 

Vianney Valès: Wastefront was started in 2019 by three Norwegians: Christian Hvamstad, Vegard Bringsjord, and Inge Berge. I joined as CEO in 2021. All of us come with a background of having worked on similar projects.

Prior to Wastefront, I founded Devaltec, a leading service provider in energy transition, and was the CEO of multiple start-up companies in sustainable energy, as well as an oil and gas executive. Our entire team is united behind our shared mission to stop the unsustainable handling of end-of-life tires (ELTS): an under-reported but major cause of pollution.

Can you please detail the process of how you convert ELTs to oil?

An ELT is made of 3 main components: rubber (40 percent of biogenic origin), carbon black, and steel. The ELT is first shredded into small chips, and the metal is then separated magnetically and recovered as scrap. The chips then enter a reactor where they are heated at 850°F (454° C) without oxygen. No CO2 is produced during this process.

The chips are then decomposed into a gas and a solid phase. The solid phase contains the recovered carbon black, which is refined and recycled back to tire manufacturers. The gas phase is split into a gas stream that heats the whole process, and into liquid fuel. The liquid fuel is sold as a biofuel component for further processing into green transportation fuel or bioplastic. The whole process is uniquely green as 100 percent of the products are either bio or recycled.

How is oil production from ELTs different from using it as a fuel?

When ELTs are used as fuel, only energy is recovered - there is no recycling component. The alignment of this fuel solution with the green objectives of the EU, as measured under the Taxonomy rules, is at best 25 percent - versus 100 percent for our process.

As of today, where can the TDO be used? Isn't using tires as fuel contributing to increasing carbon emissions?

TDO can be used in green transportation solutions. Our solution allows for 80 percent more CO2 reduction than the production of transportation fuels with fossil alternatives.

The catalyst you are developing with Hulteberg, how will it help TDO to be used directly as a diesel substitute? 

The whole program ensures the TDO evolves from a biofuel component to a biofuel finished product. The catalyst itself is an important but small part of the program.

The founders of Wastefront also have a history with another fuel venture, Quantafuel, a company that converts plastic into fuel. What are the learnings from there? 

Tyre chemical recycling has advantages over plastic recycling in terms of feedstock stability and alignment with green objectives (higher recycling rate). Our experience with Quantafuel gave us experience working on recycling projects, and we learned a lot about project management. Now we’re taking these skills, experiences, and collective industry knowledge forward and putting it all towards Wastefront.

Your upcoming plant in Sunderland, U.K., as per your own estimates, will cover only 20 percent of ELTs in the UK. What are your plans for recycling ELTs in the EU? 

A Norwegian company is turning worn-out tires into oil
Wastefront's upcoming tire recycling plant at Sunderland

The plant in Sunderland will be supplied with ELTs from across the UK. Wastefront has immediate plans to deploy our technology across Continental Europe, North America, and Asia where the ELT problem is also acute.

Other than the one-time grants for further research, what government support does a company like yours enjoy? What are pressing issues that need government support? 

There are multiple other types of research and development support available in the UK and in the EU. Additionally, government-backed investors can accelerate our deployment in a decisive fashion. In the US, the new Inflation Reduction Act is also a boost to support our type of business.

How difficult is it to make a circular tire economy and stay financially afloat? 

Our mission has its challenges because we are creating an entirely new ecosystem around ELTs. We must bring together partners from different backgrounds - such as large engineering and construction companies, technology and energy partners, tire manufacturers, waste companies, and more - and align a range of perspectives in order for us all to work together, which can take time.

Our business approach - being a Green Global Industrial Platform to solve the ELT problem - is unique. But at the same time, we feel privileged to be playing our part in realizing the global clean transition, which is rewarding in itself. This also ensures we remain financially healthy, with our offering in high demand and increasing numbers of investors committing to doing more on ESG and finding solutions that mitigate the massive problem that is climate change.