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UMass Lowell lands licensing deal with rubber recycler

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By FRANK TUTALO

LOWELL The University of Massachusetts Lowell could bring in as much as $23 million over the next 10 years in a licensing deal for technology pioneered by the school's plastics engineering department.

The agreement, announced yesterday by officials from the school and a Texas-based engineering firm, could also mean fewer car tires piling up at junkyards.

Instead, rubber will find its way back into use as injection-molded products such as storage containers, weather-stripping devices and handgun cases all based on patented technology invented by UMass Lowell professor Joey Mead and graduate student Helen Liu.

'Until now, attempts to blend recycled cured rubber with plastics have been largely unsuccessful,' said J. Wayne Rodrigue, president of Re-Engineered Composite Systems of Odessa, Texas. 'But, now we're able to blend high levels of elastomer, of up to 60 percent to 75 percent by weight, without degrading strength and other properties.'

Composite Systems which will develop, manufacture and sell the product plans to produce 12 million pounds of it next year, 24 million pounds in 2004, and 50 million in 2005. In all, 775 million pounds could be produced in 10 years, Rodrigue said.

UMass Lowell will receive royalties on every product sold that incorporates the new technology. The company, which will pay the school $25,000 this year, and increasingly more in subsequent years, estimates the thermoplastic elastomer market to reach around 20 billion pounds a year; it hopes to capture 150 million pounds of that, less than 1 percent.

Rodrigue says the new product compares favorably to two similar ones already on the market from ExxonMobil Corp. and Dow Chemical Corp.

The Re-Poly technology mixes discarded rubber and plastic, but maintains several properties of rubber, including its original strength. Rodrigue discovered the product two years ago, when he bumped into Liu at a rubber convention in Orlando, Fla. Liu, who was not present yesterday, did her doctoral thesis on the recycled rubber product.

Krishna Vedula, dean of the Francis School of Engineering at UMass Lowell, said the project makes sense on two levels recycling and building relationships with businesses. The project was first funded from an $85,000 grant awarded by the state-funded Chelsea Center for Recycling and Economic Development.

'This is the biggest success we've had so far, of all the things we've funded,' said Alan Moore, the center's director of technical programs, which funds projects that aim to decrease waste.

Composite Systems has already made arrangements to process up to 10 million pounds of the product with a Mansfield, Texas, manufacturer. There are also plans to hire up to 60 research associates over the next 10 years.

'We've just begun our walk with UMass,' Rodrigue said.