Criticism bounces off local inventor of rubber noise barriers for roads Columbia man invests life's savings in product

September 10, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

Indu Mishra of Columbia's Harper's Choice village is so confident that his creation of noise barrier walls made out of recycled and ground rubber will one day be a success that he's poured $100,000 of his own money and countless hours of labor into it.

But the concept of rubber sound walls just bounces off critics who say rubber noise barrier walls aren't attractive and that they cost more to make than traditional concrete barriers.

They also worry that using the nation's surplus of discarded tires could create barriers that leak vapors into the environment and contaminate the surroundings and are susceptible to fires.

Mishra, a Morgan State University chemistry professor, disputes those criticisms and says that if he didn't believe in his product -- called "kanwall" -- he would not have invested all his savings into it.

He's also had independent laboratories conduct tests and they found his product is effective and safe and will not burn. "We have put it to the severest tests and it does not burn," Mishra says.

Use of kanwall could help rid the country of solid waste in landfills, he said.

"I have a new technology," Mishra says, holding a sample panel of his product at his dinner table recently. "I'm very optimistic. I know it will fly one day."

But even after a five-year struggle, Mishra hasn't found a buyer for his product -- panels made of recycled tire-rubber slabs bonded to steel decks. He also hasn't been able to obtain a patent for kanwall, named after his wife, Kanan, a college professor.

Even so, Robert Armstrong, the noise team leader in the Office of Environment and Planning for the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) in Washington, calls Mishra a leader in the booming industry of noise barrier walls.

"He was one of the innovators," Armstrong says. "He was one of the first people I had heard of using grinded up rubber for noise barrier designs."

But Mishra is not the only person trying to use rubber for noise barrier walls. For example:

Since 1989, Carsonite International in South Carolina has sold a product with a fiberglass-like outer shell and rubber interior.

DuBrook in Virginia uses a scrap rubber and concrete combination for noise barrier walls.

Sound Zero in Birdsboro, Pa., manufactures recycled rubber facing material that is used with precast concrete and composite steel.

Despite the range of companies experimenting with recycled tires, Armstrong says, "the idea of using recycled rubber has not had a rousing success."

He said transportation agencies across the country are concerned about its aesthetics, the environmental impact and what happens if "a vehicle running into a barrier catches on fire? Will it produce a toxic gas or a toxic product?"

Most transportation agencies prefer sticking with the tried-and-true pre-cast concrete, says Armstrong.

El Angove, publisher of the 3-year-old Wall Journal in Florida, said the rubber concept has shortcomings, but he sees benefits. "All those stupid tires, they need to be gotten rid of," said Angove, who publishes the international publication on transportation-related and environmental issues.

And as the construction industry is increasingly hard hit, more people want a piece of the sound-wall pie. Each wall averages $1 million per linear mile.

As Armstrong says, people think "there's a lot of money. Can I get some too?"

Mishra touts kanwall as a material to drown out sound from highways and airports -- and says it might also be possible to use it in roofing and drywall in houses. "People haven't caught up with the idea of using rubber walls," he says.

About two years ago, Mishra asked the State Highway Administration (SHA) to take a look at his product for possible use on Maryland highways.

SHA officials looked at his mock wall that was assembled near BWI airport and were concerned about two basics: structure and appearance, says Charlie Adams, director of office of environmental designs at SHA's Baltimore office.

"It just looks like a plain flat shiny wall," Adams says, adding: "You can literally -- just with your hands -- just pull the pieces of the shredded rubber off the wall."

Another SHA concern was the flammability issue.

Since SHA turned down the kanwall, Mishra has created another design called exposed aggregate, which has stones on the top of the surface. He's hoping SHA will give this option a trial.

For now, he said he will suffer through the growing pains of being an inventor, believing one day his product will be bought. "I'm ready to sell it," he said.

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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