Hilton Head, South Carolina — By 2020, the US tire industry will face a significant shortage of carbon black, according to an official from one of the leading carbon black companies.
A combination of increased domestic tire production and a stiff regulatory stance by the US Environmental Protection Agency will account for the shortfall, said Leszek Nikiel, manager of the Fort Worth, Texas, Research Center for Sid Richardson Carbon & Energy Co.
He gave his carbon black forecast at the 2015 Clemson University Global Tire Industry Conference in Hilton Head.
Tires are about 30 percent carbon black on average, and more than 70 percent of carbon black production goes into tires, he said.
Carbon black manufacturing plants used to be high polluters, but now they are self-contained and clean, and their environmental impact has been reduced significantly, Nikiel said.
Sid Richardson's carbon black co-gen plant in Big Spring, Texas, has eliminated 90,000 tons of coal burned annually compared with operations, he said.
This in turn eliminates more than 380 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually, as well as more than 660,000 pounds of sulfur oxide emissions, 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen oxide and 38,000 pounds of particulate emissions, Nikiel said.
“Nevertheless, the efficiency of the plant is not 100 percent, and there are still a lot of emissions,” he said.
The EPA has targeted the US carbon black industry to reduce 90 percent of its nitrogen oxide emissions and 95 percent of its sulphur oxide emissions, Nikiel said.
Of the five major US carbon black manufacturers, two—Cabot Corp. and Continental Carbon Co.—have settled with the EPA, agreeing to install stringent new controls in their plants and pay many millions of dollars for remediation, he said.
Of the various methods to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions in carbon black operations, selective catalytic reduction is the most promising, offering an efficiency rate approaching 95 percent, according to Nikiel.
Reducing sulfur oxide emissions, however, is much more difficult, he said.
“It is almost impossible to lower sulfur in carbon black operations and still make a viable product,” he said. “Lowering sulfur changes the viscosity and reduces yield.”
Wet scrubbing for sulfur is highly efficient at more than 90 percent but produces gypsum as a by-product, according to Nikiel.
Dry scrubbing has no by-products and uses little or no water, but its efficiency is under 70 percent, he said.
Using a low-sulphur feedstock for carbon black is the best solution, but low-sulphur feedstocks are expensive and in very limited quantity, he said.
“There is not enough low-sulphur feedstock to meet demand, and it would bring carbon black prices up,” the Sid Richardson research centre manager said.
The US may need more carbon black production to meet tire industry demand, according to Nikiel. But at the same time, the carbon black industry may need to spend significant capital to bring US carbon black plants up to the EPA's environmental standards, he said.
Some 25 percent of US carbon black production—mostly smaller plants—could be forced to close because of EPA enforcement, Nikiel said.
The resulting cost increase—probably four to eight cents per pound—will go beyond capital cost, having a significant impact on operating cost, he said.
Asked during the question-and-answer period about carbon black industry plans to expand production, Nikiel said it was very hard to comment.
“The EPA will permit building plants in the US very soon, but I don't know what our competitors will do,” he said.