'We are trying to play our own part in reducing the utilisation of virgin finite resources': Suresh Sodani
Suresh Sodani, MD and CEO of Century Enka talks to Autocar Professional about the company’s latest development in nylon tyre cord fabric technology using 100 percent recycled nylon waste.
Century Enka is the second largest producer of nylon tyre cord fabric in India with over 32,000 tonnes per annum capacity. It sells its products to tyre manufacturers in India like MRF, Apollo, Ceat, JK Tyres and TVS. Given the diversity of tyre products and performance specifications, the company works closely with clients to help develop specific requirement-based reinforcements which go into the tyres as per design. Till now, automobile tyres have been seen as the classic example of a high-volume product derived from non-renewable petroleum resources that is designed for single use and they do not fit the desired paradigm of reduce, reuse, recycle. But that ideology is changing fast with fast adoption of sustainability and material recycling processes.
What’s the market size for nylon tyre cord?
The total demand is estimated between 130,000 tonnes to 1,35,000 tonnes per annum, which meets 5-7,000 tonnes depending on the demand of tyres. Bias tyres are used in three broad categories — it goes in medium and heavy vehicles like commercial vehicles in tractors and farm segments, and in two-wheeler vehicles. In the medium and heavy vehicles, as well as light commercial vehicles, there are bias tyres also known as cross-ply tyres and there are radial tyres which use steel as reinforcement.
Over a period of time, the steel radial tyres are world-over increasing their market share in the total space of medium and heavy vehicles and in our estimate the current share of radial tyres is about 56 to 58 percent of the total demand of the medium and heavy vehicles as well as the light commercial vehicles.
What technologies are you employing for reusing waste nylon tyre cord fabric?
This is a unique pioneering based on technology we have inherited from our technology partner Akzo Nobel when we started this company in 2005. We are able to reprocess the waste that is generated during production of nylon tyre cord fabric and other nylon products.
From these waste products we first make caprolactam — the underlying raw material to make nylon products and then to the nylon chips. We have been in the process of making reprocessed nylon since 2012.
When did you start working with tyre makers?
We started working with Apollo Tyres for manufacture of nylon tyre cord fabric. It was the first initiative in the world to produce nylon tyre cord fabric out of reprocessed waste nylon. We worked with Apollo for developing raw materials and nylon tyre cord fabric. This was a long process, spanning one to one and a half years.
In 2012, we commercialised nylon tyre cord fabric when Apollo tyres was convinced by the intensive checking of the technical properties, that the product meets all technical parameters of nylon tyre cord fabric made out of virgin material.
So, we did our commercial supplies and parallelly we’ve been working with large manufacturers like MRF and JK tyres who are also keen to make tyres out of reprocessed nylon tyre cord fabric. We are in the process of getting those tested and by 2023 we will start commercial supply to other manufacturing companies also.
How does recycling benefit in the overall process of manufacturing?
The benefit of a circular economy is known to everyone, but what it does in our case is that it reduces the net requirement of caprolactam, which is a product from crude oil that gives benzene and with ammonia, capernactum is produced. To that extent, the quantity of virgin caprolactam that we are able to replace with this reprocessed caprolactam coming from nylon waste, we’re reducing the net requirement of caprolactam coming from crude oil. At the same time, we are also ensuring that the waste nylon is going to the right use, as sometimes it goes for land filling and other undesirable usages.
You said that part of the initiative is in reducing the dependence on crude oil as part of the circular economy. How much of that is actually being replaced?
Currently we’re at a small scale. Out of the 3,000 tonnes per month of nylon tyre cord capacity we can make up to 200 tonnes per month of reprocessed material. We currently make polyamide out of the waste of close to 250 tonnes per month which goes in forms of chips, nylon filament yarn, etc.
As of now, the process is limited to our nylon waste, but in the future, we can expand the capacity and process waste which is sourced from other original nylon producers. We can increase the capacity, but it is a small business as of now.
Would you tell us a little about any of these path breaking solutions – because we’re looking at new forms of mobility coming up?
The properties of reprocessed nylon tyres is equivalent to nylon tyre cord fabric made from virgin caprolactam, so it can go into every usage.
The only thing is the matter of placement of products for customers who are vigilant about impact on the world environment. It goes very well with the electric vehicles because the purpose of electric vehicles is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the combustion process that uses petrol or diesel. So, this goes well with the concept of EV.
Is there a cost advantage of using recycled material?
As the scale is very small as of now, the process is expensive compared to deriving caprolactam from a virgin source. The way we’ve been working with the tyre companies is that they would like to place this as a premium tyre compared to tyre made from virgin caprolactam.
Several tyre companies are introducing premium tyres with up to 70 percent recycled materials. What does it mean for Century Enka?
The entire auto value chain is trying to reduce impact directly and indirectly to manage the EV space as well as what we're also utilising more sustainable material. So, we are trying to play our own part in reducing the utilisation of virgin finite resources. And as far as possible, try to increase the share of pre-processed material.
Is this only applicable to India, or are you looking at other territories as well?
We participated in the Tyre Technology Symposium in Hannover, Germany in March. And we were also nominated for one of the tyre technology awards for 2023 in innovative product development. So, our team had met with many tyre manufacturers that are not currently our customers but they had keen interest in the product. In our understanding, we are the first ones in space of NTC made out of reprocessed nylon. They were very keen on understanding and testing the product initially and then going into commercial discussion.
Are there trials happening at this moment?
The trials are currently with the Indian manufacturers, but we have initiated and given them the technical properties as per our labs and as well as a reference list. Now, MRF tyres are also well established as tyre brands in international markets, particularly Europe and US. So, that itself gives a lot of comfort that the tyre companies have started making commercial tyres out of the product. So, that gives us the headway in terms of reducing the testing time. I think the time that we took with Apollo could be reduced to almost half or 30 percent of the number of days or months for final approval.
How are you looking at the business growing in the coming years?
The first part is to engage with a larger number of tyre companies and increase the volume of our current reprocessed nylon waste. The next step is once the interest develops and the tyre companies are able to differentiate tyres made out of reprocessed material and place them suitably in the right markets with the right customers.
We could look at expansion of the technology, as it is something unique that we process in India. We have inherited from Akzo Nobel and made our own modifications and perfected that.
So, the next step would be to expand the reprocessing of waste, first our own balance and second also from nylon producers and increase the basket. We would like to work more with the EV, while the tyre companies are working with two wheelers, three-wheelers.
This interview was first published in Autocar Professional's July 15, 2023 issue.
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