Hallam, Nebraska – When Monolith Materials was started in 2012 by Rob Hanson and Pete Johnson, its plans were audacious – to pioneer new, cleaner technology in the production of carbon black, and to do so in the US after decades of seeing the rubber additive produced in Southeast Asia and China.
After eight years and hundreds of millions of dollars in research and development costs, the first few chapters of Monolith's story have been written and its bold goals are coming to fruition.
The company claims it has perfected novel technology that ultimately will produce the performance-enhancing carbon black from natural gas rather than petroleum or crude oil.
And this autumn, Monolith is set to make its first run of commoditised carbon black using this more sustainable method at a 500,000-sq.-ft. facility in the tiny village of Hallam, known as Olive Creek Phase I, the first carbon black plant to be built for scaled-up production in the US in the last 50 years.
"We are about to do something very special," said Chris Cornille, chief commercial and supply chain officer for Monolith. "We are going to make a positive impact on the Earth. We are certainly excited as customers buy product from us, but this is a production process that is going to help our children and our grandchildren."
The combination of rubber and carbon black has been coined "the marriage of the century" by experts in the industry.
A majority of the carbon black produced is used as a reinforcement additive in tires, enabling wet traction enhancement; reduction of wear by abrasion; stiffness improvement; and other traits. Carbon black also improves the performance of hoses, door seals, food packaging and roofing materials.
In plastics, carbon black is used mainly as a pigment, "tunable" to blue or brown hues, although it can provide improved UV resistance and increased strength as well. It also is used in coatings and adhesives, printer ink and batteries.
Traditionally, the additive that brings these enhancements to tires and industrial rubber products is produced from crude oil, which, through heat, breaks down into carbon black (carbon) and carbon dioxide, the latter of which is inimical to the environment.
Using natural gas (as opposed to petroleum as a feedstock) is a greener option, Cornille said, as natural gas, through pyrolysis, breaks down into carbon and hydrogen, the latter of which can be repurposed as an energy source—powering not only utilities, turbines and other functions at the plant, but the surrounding community as well.
"The only co-product in our revolutionary process is plentiful hydrogen," Cornille said. "This valuable hydrogen gas can be used in a number of processes, but most importantly, in generating clean power. The use of hydrogen for clean power generation led to our first-of-its-kind partnership with the Nebraska Public Power District, Nebraska's largest provider of electricity."
Monolith's headquarters are located just outside Hallam in Lincoln, and the economic boost from the additional 100 jobs at the Olive Creek location was not lost on local leaders.
"I'm proud to say that Monolith's project is deploying advanced technologies that set the bar much higher in terms of environmental responsibility and sustainable business practices," said Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler. "It's a great, great business for Lincoln."
Monolith executive chairman Bill Brady said that for decades, carbon black production has gone overseas, creating jobs and economic growth in Southeast Asia and China rather than in the US.
"This project brings it back to the heartland," he said in 2018 during the groundbreaking for Olive Creek Phase I. "More importantly, it does so through technology."
Years in the making
In the development of this proprietary process for carbon black production, Monolith gleaned crucial data between 2016 and 2018 at a now-decommissioned pilot plant in Redwood City, California, known as Monolith's "Seaport" plant.
The Redwood City facility perfected the methods that will be used at Olive Creek, technology to which Monolith obtained the rights in 2013 from the former Norway-based Kvaerner Co., now Aker Solutions Engineering Co.
From 1991 to 2003, Aker Solutions designed and built one pilot plant in Sweden and one industrial plant in Canada that electrically converted natural gas into carbon black and hydrogen. Monolith worked closely with the original design team from these projects, fine-tuning the applications at its Seaport plant for its target industries: tire, mechanical rubber goods (non-tire) and specialty, non-rubber products.
"We have spoken with many customers in each segment," Cornille said. "We see our supply as a traditional domestic base, with about 70% of the carbon black going to tires. We are looking at domestic tire manufacturers and our customer breakdown will be similar to a traditional breakdown."
And Olive Creek, already operational and eying a fourth quarter production run of its carbon black, is a scaled-up version of the Seaport facility, said Tom Maier, chief technology officer at Monolith.
"We learned a lot about process improvements and OC1 will benefit from that," Maier said. "This could be the next big thing."
Olive Creek Phase I will have the capacity to produce about 14,000 tonnes per year of carbon black, only about 0.1% of the global, 14-million-tonne production. However, it also will have the ability to produce 125 MW of electricity via the hydrogen that is produced, according to Maier.
Typical production runs for carbon black are in the 120,000-ton to 160,000-ton-per-year yield, a capacity that Monolith believes it will reach when it expands with Olive Creek Phase II, set for its first high-capacity production run in 2024.
Olive Creek II could add up to 500 jobs as well, according to Monolith.
"We know that in order to supply our customers we have to be competitive from a pricing standpoint," Cornille said. "Customers get the added benefit of using technology to make it a cleaner world."
Cornille added that this is "Part 1" of the Monolith story—the thrust of which is making a positive impact on the environment using a sustainable business model. This also was one of the tenets for Monolith's founders when establishing the company in 2012.
"It all started with a vision from Rob (Hanson) and Pete (Johnson) using two key components—a model that is environmentally transformative and profitable," Cornille said. "Some businesses have a great environmental story, but they are not sustainable. To do both together is very hard and it takes innovative technology.
"You have to change the paradigm. Innovation and technology run deep with everything we do at Monolith."
Hydrogen as a by-product
The world's lightest element, a by-product of carbon black production as pipeline natural gas breaks down via pyrolysis, is key to Monolith's drive toward 100-percent renewable energy to drive the Olive Creek facility and surrounding community, Cornille said.
"We can repurpose the hydrogen into electricity," he said. "Using natural gas (and the pyrolysis method), there is no flame, no oxygen, no local CO2 emissions ... only carbon and hydrogen. A furnace that produces CO2 is inherently flawed, and there is pressure on that industry from an environmental standpoint. There is an outrageously small amount of CO2 that is produced with our process."
Cornille said hydrogen can be used to create electricity in turbines; as an additive in chemicals and fertilisers; in fuel cells; and in transportation.
And according to Monolith, using natural gas will produce at least 90% less in CO2 emissions than methods that derive carbon black from petroleum or coal tar.
The carbon black derived from this method also adds nearly identical performance properties to rubber as the carbon black produced with petroleum.
"The particles are different but the performance is very similar," Maier said. "We are excited for the ability to match properties in a much cleaner way. In some formulations, it will be an easy drop-in. In others we will formulate the carbon black to match the properties."
It was this efficiency and performance in Monolith's processes that drew Maier to join the company within the last year.
"I have been looking at these things for many years and I am jaded," Maier said. "What got me excited in this case is the clean hydrogen play. I can see it growing and expanding. This can really dominate the industry 25 years from now as there are so many things we can do with natural gas. When I saw the data, I saw that they had something here. I believe we're going to make it happen.
"People say a new innovation is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but in this case it really just might be."