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Recyclable Rubber saves billions

Recyclable Rubber Is Possible

This Rubber House is named for its use of recycled rubber conveyor belts screwed onto the exterior of the home to serve as roof and cladding material.

PhD Laurens Polgar has created recyclable rubber.

Until now, rubber was only reusable as low grade product, for example used as pegs or paving stones.

By using a different system, Polgar has made rubber that is completely recyclable to new rubber, while maintaining all its properties.

Polgar won with his invention the Benelux finals of the prestigious Falling Walls Lab and is allowed to participate in the European final in Berlin.

In America alone, 300 million tires are thrown out as waste every year. But what if they could be reused?

Car tires, shoe soles, cable casing: rubber is everywhere. But it is a shame that the millions of kilos of this black stuff cannot be recycled and are therefore causing an enormous environmental problem.

‘The moment rubber comes out of a tree, it’s a viscous fluid’, says PhD candidate in product technology, Laurens Polgar. ‘In this fluid, long rubber polymer chains, or long chains of rubber molecules, are floating past each other.’

The ‘old’ rubber

In order to turn this into rubber as we know it, a kind of crosslink is added to it. ‘This creates a network which stops the rubber from flowing. But these connections – crucial for the process of making usable rubber – form a problem upon reuse. This is because the material has to be made liquid again so it can be moulded into another shape. This destroys the network of crosslinks, and the rubber itself is destroyed with it.

The new ‘gold’

In order to find a solution, Polgar went back to basics. He wanted to create rubber that is recyclable in and of itself. And he succeeded. ‘This new rubber contains crosslinks that can be destroyed without destroying itself.’

To do this, he used a different type of polymer which is known to have crosslinks that can be repaired once they have been broken. He then put those into the raw material. Then, there was the challenge of making sure that this new type of rubber would behave like the old one.

I’ve had to make quite a few adjustments, but I did ultimately succeed’. Now the industry just has to take the rubber into production. But Polgar believes it is possible. The new polymers are not much more expensive. Moreover, the total costs will be lower because the product can be reused for longer. Polgar expects, therefore, that products made from this new type of rubber will be available within five years.

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Hands on

Although Polgar’s background is in chemistry, he does not spend all his time doing experiments in a fume hood. ‘I also do hands-on research’, says Polgar. ‘I can really feel the results of my experiments.’

Polgar also thinks it is important to publicise his profession. ‘I think you should show what you’re working on to a wider audience.’

After all, they are the ones who have to actually use the products. This was the main reason for Polgar to participate in Falling Walls Lab Groningen, where young scientists can present their ideas. ‘I didn’t really go with the intention of winning’, Polgar laughs. ‘So when I did, it was a nice surprise.’

Now, he has represented the Benelux in the final round in Berlin. ‘That does sound pretty cool, doesn’t it?’ Polgar beams.

I think I should probably just bring a piece of recyclable rubber and show them that it’s already possible.’

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