Hidden gem: how old tyres could bring jobs back to the old minefields

They say you can’t keep a good man down, and in Steve Oldroyd’s case, they may be right.

Dr Brian Sulaiman and Steve Oldroyd of Barnsley-based Dena Nano Ltd, which makes wood replacement material out of old tyres, and uses it to make prefab isolation units for Covid patients and modular housing for quick assembly in trouble spots Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe
Dr Brian Sulaiman and Steve Oldroyd of Barnsley-based Dena Nano Ltd, which makes wood replacement material out of old tyres, and uses it to make prefab isolation units for Covid patients and modular housing for quick assembly in trouble spots Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

He started his career down the mines in South Yorkshire, and when that industry died he went into renewable energy. Then, when government incentives to install solar panels were scrapped in 2015, Mr Oldroyd fell victim for a second time to the vagaries of the energy industry.

But now he’s back, with a technology that could be transformative – and he’s bringing jobs back to one of Yorkshire’s most famous old coalfields.

Mr Oldroyd is managing director of Dena Nano Group, a small Barnsley-based company that specialises in products made with patented nanotechnology.

“In a nutshell, we take end-of-life tyres and plastics, shred them and grind them into a fine dust,” he says.

“We then turn this into a wood replacement technology (WRT) that resists water, fire, impact, ultraviolet, salt, insects and humidity, is good for weather- and sound-proofing, and can be drilled, nailed, screwed or glued.”

But the real magic comes between these two stages. The key to the process that turns tyres into homes is a very fine powder composite which Mr Oldroyd calls “Brian’s fairy dust”.

“Brian” is chairman and CEO Dr Brian Sulaiman, who has been developing the technology for 30 years and holds 78 patents.

Born in Iraq, he came to England in the early 1970s, took a first in his Chemistry BSc at the University of Leeds, and stayed to complete his PhD. More recently, he was professor of nanotechnology at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia.

The only person he has shared the composite’s secret formula with is Mr Oldroyd.

Dena Nano is also using the WRT to create modular housing for use in developing countries and isolation units for Covid patients.

Mr Oldroyd says the interest in them has been “phenomenal”, with enquiries coming from all over the world, including from the World Health Organization.

“We can get four of these units in a 40-foot container and we can build them on-site in less than half a day, like a Lego set,” says Mr Oldroyd.

“We can ship them around the world and erect them for between £12,500 and £15,000, depending on the specification.”

As for the modular housing, which Mr Oldroyd says is carbon-negative, units have already been shipped to Iraq and Ghana.

“The ones in Iraq are two or three-bedroomed affordable houses, or bungalows, and we can build them for £35,000,” he says.

“The ones in Ghana are two or three-bedroomed apartments and they’re in blocks of 16, four levels of four, for £30-35,000.

“We’re looking to supply them now around the world, to be rapidly deployed for natural disasters or war zones, such as in Syria, where there are millions of displaced people.”

He adds that one organisation in the Middle East wants to do a deal for 1.8 million units.

Dr Sulaiman’s nanotechnology can also be used for waste-to-energy, waste-to-fertiliser plants and even water purification, offering the possibility of creating self-sustaining communities, which Dena Nano calls Nano Cities.

The raw material, tyres, are so abundant – 1.5 billion are discarded each year worldwide – that companies actually pay Dena Nano £150 a tonne to take them off their hands. “Everything’s scalable – that’s the beauty of this technology,” he says. “And the technology’s green.”

The firm is now so busy it’s looking to take over a 120,000 sq ft site at Grimethorpe, not far from where Mr Oldroyd started his career at Cortonwood Colliery.

He says the site will need over 100 employees, but there’s a ready source of labour on tap; the site used to belong to a window company that went into liquidation in the summer, and its redundant employees have skills in plastic extrusion.

“Once this gets rolling properly it’ll be one of the biggest companies in the country, if not Europe. It’ll be absolutely huge,” says Mr Oldroyd. “I’d say five to 10 years for global domination!” he jokes.

“There’s no point in thinking small, is there? When you’ve got access to the technology we’ve got, you’ve got to let it fulfil its potential, not just for the benefit of the company, but for the benefit of the end-users, so they can have stable accommodation instead of living in tents.”

This, it turns out, is one of the pair’s driving ambitions.

“Neither of us are driven by money,” he says. “The humanitarian element is our main goal – we want to help, not just make money.”

Money is important, though, to get operations off the ground, and Dena Nano’s problem is that it lacks investment, at least for the time being.

“This has all been self-funded by Brian and myself – we’ve put almost every penny we’ve got into this,” says Mr Oldroyd.

“We’ve only got 10 employees, and we’ve kept the company ticking over on our own funds, so the only challenge is if we run out of money.”

But he says that won’t happen, as there’s interest from a consortium of UK backers: “The way things are going, we’ll be fully funded before Christmas.”

In the meantime, he and Dr Sulaiman are off to the Middle East on Monday, where one of the royal families want Dena Nano to set up “the biggest plant in the world”.

If things work out as they hope, there should be plenty of promising business trips in the future. “This could be really big,” says Mr Oldroyd. “We’re a hidden gem in the old coalfield!”