The co-owners of Barco explain the sustainable process behind its rubber manufacturing operation

Barco LLC (Barco), the British American Rubber Company, is a specialist rubber compounder and recycler, and is leading the way in the development of a revolutionary concept that could transform the sustainability and circularity of the rubber industry.

The business began life in early 2016, with President and Co-Owner, Mike Cash, collating a group of investors with a passion for his business venture. Construction began on a 66,000-square-foot facility in 2016, with the new building and equipment installation complete by early 2017.

The company is headed up by co-owners Mike Cash and Ian Malpass, who join us to discuss the company’s evolution, the process of pyrolysis, and plans for the future. “When Ian and I started the business back in 2016, we had 20 associates running a single shift,” Mike begins. “Today, we’re running a 24/7 operation, with the recent additions of another mixer for black compounds, a smaller unit for non-black mixing, and extended calendering capabilities.”

Since its foundation, Barco’s facility has been extended four times; a 10,000-square-foot extension to the finished goods warehouse came first, followed by an additional 38,000-square-foot to the raw material warehouse, and another 58,000-square-foot building and the installation of a 4-roll invested ‘L’ Calender and then another 10,000-square-foot addition for finished goods.

Currently totaling 182,000 square feet, Barco’s ever-expanding manufacturing facility is testament to the company’s tremendous growth trajectory. The site allows mixing capabilities of the following polymers: natural rubber, SBR, PBD, NBR, XNBR, EPDM, Neoprene (CR), and polyisoprene (IR). Its capability of using various grades of carbon black is supported by tanks for smaller volume oils, as well as 10,000-gallon and 20,000-gallon oil tanks for large volumes, both of which are located inside the facility to reduce the possibility of oil reaching the ground.

“Compounding is where we started and it’s still what we do on a day-to-day basis,” Ian explains. “We make millions of pounds of rubber every month for our clients, who are typically manufacturers of everything from flooring fork truck tires to conveyor belts and truck components. The process of compounding requires a great degree of accuracy and knowledge, which Mike and his team have built over the last five years.

“We can then modify the formula to customize the product to suit the client’s requirements,” he continues. “If a customer needs a stronger, more flexible, or heat resistant product, for example, we can easily cater to their needs.”

With expertise in the process of pyrolysis, our conversation with Ian naturally turns to the benefits of such a revolutionary concept. “Our biggest development to date is the pyrolysis process,” says Ian. “Let me take you back to the motivation behind this: with consumer demands for recycling and circularity constantly increasing, we established a recycling operation in Holland. A huge amount of waste associated with the rubber industry is typically sent to landfill or incinerated, the latter of which was historically considered better for the environment, but burning rubber is actually three times worse than burning natural gas.

“There will always be waste rubber, but there are very little uses for it regardless of whether it is cured or uncured. In the US, for example, 330 million tires are allegedly thrown away every year. Up until recently, most of these went to landfill, but people are now finding other effective uses, such as children’s playgrounds or even fuel for cement works.

“While our recycling plant enabled us to take back product from US customers and end-users in Holland and reuse it in our manufacturing process, it wasn’t enough for us. Instead, we wanted an alternative long-term solution, sparking our research into the ways in which we could more effectively utilize waste rubber.

“Then, we came across pyrolysis,” he states. “To put it simply, it is the process of heating something up to a very high temperature in the absence of oxygen. Without oxygen, the material cannot burn and instead degrades. If you take rubber, for example, , heating it up to around 500-to-600 degrees centigrade in the absence of oxygen, it will break down into its base components of oil and carbon black.

“There are three components to rubber: oil, carbon black, and polymer. During pyrolysis, the polymer and the oil become gases, while the carbon black reverts to its original form, meaning all three elements can then be condensed back into our products. We can’t yet take all our waste through the process, but we can bring around 75 percent of everything we manufacture through pyrolysis and reengineer it back into an existing product.

“While pyrolysis has been around for some time now, few companies are operating the process. In fact, you have to travel all over the world to find people with the relevant experience. I’ve personally visited two installations in Europe, two in Turkey, two in China, and three in India, but every plant carried out the process slightly differently.

“The technology behind pyrolysis is slightly different depending on whether the waste rubber is cured or uncured, the latter of which is much more complicated. We’re currently developing methodology to be able to reprocess uncured rubber, removing the carbon black and oil through pyrolysis.”

With no established consensus on how to optimize pyrolysis, Barco has invested in a test reactor to bring the technology to fruition. “We’re hoping to be processing upwards of 1000-to-2000 tons of rubber every month in our Georgia facility by the middle of 2024, and we’ve invested in a test reactor to explore every possible theory with the goal of establishing the optimum methodology,” Ian reveals.

“We’re processing all sorts of different catalysts with varying temperatures and using different additives to find the very best way of separating the particles while keeping the performance of such particles intact,” he adds. “Once it’s successfully established, we’ll multiply these pyrolysis sites across the US to widen the reach of the technology and combat the industry’s problem of waste.”

Looking to the future, Mike reveals Barco’s imminent plans. “As a custom mixer of rubber compounds, continuous improvement is key, so we’re always on the lookout for ways to improve our efficiency,” he concludes. “We’ve recently invested $10 million in a new mixing line and several other pieces of equipment including a dust collector to keep the plant clean and enhance our efficiency. We are also in the early stages of adding a recycling facility next door to our existing mixing plant, in another investment of over $10 million.”