The world market for carbon is valued at $52 billion market. Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe. Its consumption has been gradually evolving from bulk carbon black for color pigments and tires ($1,000/T), activated carbon for water filters ($2,000/T), carbon fibers for strong textiles and car body parts where it can replace steel ($25,000/T) towards advanced carbon nanotubes for the semiconductor medical industries to mention a few (+$150,000/T). In the future, carbon transformed into graphene, a honeycomb shaped atom-thick chicken-wire like material that is expected to become a core component of solar cells, electrodes and transistors will increase world demand. The cost price of one square centimeter of graphene is still in excess of one million dollars, however, by 2050 graphene could be one of the largest and most material efficient components of industry, manufactured out of widely available carbon in the atmosphere, known to be in excess and causing climate change.
The world market of carbon black in 2010 was estimated at $12 billion. The Chinese and Indian markets are growing rapidly at 8 to 10 percent per annum mainly due to the expansion of automobile sales. Carbon black is typically used in tires to add strength and to conduct heat away improving the durability of rubber. Carbon black is also sold as a pigment in photocopiers and printers, a neutralizer of ultraviolet in plastics for example in black water pipes, and as a high-end version it is used in radar absorption. Another possible bulk market for carbon is to mix and replace some mineral fertilizer with carbon blacks ($500/T), since cultivated lands are suffering a carbon loss caused by industrial agriculture.
However, the world market has been characterized by over-supply amongst others due to the expansion of Cabot in China, Indonesia, Brazil and Argentina. The largest supplier in volume is the Indian Aditya Birla group that has overtaken Cabot (USA) and Evonik (Germany) through the acquisition of Columbian Chemicals, a US producer for a combined 2 million tons production capacity and approximately $2 billion dollar in turnover. Evonik is planning to sell its carbon black division in order to concentrate on specialty chemicals.
Carbon black suspended in the air has emerged as a major environmental concern. When it is freely released in the air it constitutes a contaminant typically found in and around cities. Goodyear has successfully replace carbon black with a biodegradable starch-based polymer, supplied by Novamont (see Case 20). However this has not become a mainstream application. The source of carbon black used to be charred bones, desiccated grape vines and soot from burning oil. Modern processing has evolved into large industrial manufacturing using the heaviest oil fractions from refineries. However, the largest facility ever commissioned was only operational for 3 years in Montreal, Canada using natural gas and oil as a raw material. The prime output was hydrogen, and carbon black was the by-product. Unfortunately, the high cost of the raw material (oil or natural gas) rendered the operation uncompetitive.
Per Espen Stoknes has been studying innovative ways to produce hydrogen and explored numerous alternatives. He met with the British inventor Phil Risby who had been exploring numerous applications for plasma technologies including the splitting of methane. Per Espen had been attracted to the concept of zero emissions for mobility, a concept that that seems viable if hydrogen provides the power. In 2008, they established GasPlas AS, a British- Norwegian venture and started to explore how to create a carbon sink while using clean sources of energy. Stimulated by Daimler’s decision to test hydrogen cars in Norway, they set out to design a truly renewable way starting from biogas. The conversion of organic matter sourced from food waste, animal excrements and even black water from households into biogas has been successfully improved by Scandinavian Biogas (see Case 51). This offers a rich supply of CO2 and methane gas. GasPlas AS research team designed a breakthrough reactor that converts methane with cold plasma into hydrogen and carbon black. Using off-the-shelf standard cheap microwave components, they created a plasma reactor and patented the relevant components.
The GasPlas innovation uses short electromagnetic waves (longer than infrared and shorter than radio waves) to convert methane into its plasma state. Physics traditionally taught us to work with three states: solid, liquid and gas. The microwaves convert methane gas into its fourth, plasma state, an ionized gas breaking up the carbon and hydrogen bonds for fractions of a second before encouraging these elements to recombine into solid carbon and gaseous hydrogen. Since the microwaves couple to the electrons and not the atom the output temperature is down to between 200 and 400 degrees, hence the concept of cold plasma, since thermal plasma requires ten times higher temperature. This makes the process viable at low energy and with cheap materials.
The first cash flow
GasPlas, now chaired by Per Espen soon realized that it ownes a platform technology that has the potential to change the business model, not only for the production of hydrogen, but also for the manufacturing of carbon black, and many more businesses could be affected. Since methane from landfills and livestock is responsible for 12 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, the team at GasPlas proposes to use cold plasma to crack this abundant hydrocarbon into potentially a carbon negative energy and fertilizer. Whereas plasma has been used before to produce hydrogen, Phil Risby and the GasPlas research team found a way to operate the new reactor in a continuous mode, as well as on demand (not solely batch), at atmospheric pressure (not near vacuum) and at industrial scale volumes (not only for very high end small volume applications). In addition, while the reactor could be scaled up, the opportunity to build reactors that support continuous processing on- site offers a new window for local competitive businesses. The first reactor design delivered this fall is capable of producing up to 100 kilograms of hydrogen (H2) and 300 kg of carbon per day.
If and when five diesel buses were to operate 20 years with hydrogen produced from biogas, then instead of having emitted 5,000 tons of CO2, these busses would have sequestered 6,100 tons of greenhouse gases. This puts the power of hydrogen in a completely new context. Operating a small unit attached to a stable source of biogas could produce 200 kg of H2 generating an annual revenue of approximately €650,000. The carbon black can be sold for an additional windfall benefit of approximately 10 percent. If stored in building materials or sequestered in soils, then running these buses would actually be carbon negative, i.e. profitably drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere. The more bus or hydrogen car you drive, the less CO2 in the air.
Whereas Per Espen sees many applications beyond transportation, such as the processing of agricultural waste, the production of key chemicals like methanol and ethylene, his vision is to create an integrated local system. In order to overcome the bottlenecks of production and consumption, and availability of hydrogen, where storage remains costly he foresees one container that is capable of supplying hydrogen as a fuel source on demand. So instead of producing centrally and then shipping hydrogen around the world, one would render any biogas facility – even at relatively small scale into a source of revenue, generating higher income for the management of waste while capturing CO2 profitably.
One of the attractions of this platform technology is that the same approach to hydrogen could be applied to the synthesis of nitrogen gas from air, offering agriculture industrial grade nitrogen fertilizer. The same type of plasma reactor could be developed to manufacture liquid fuels from gaseous feedstock. The breakthrough application of cold plasma technology offers an opportunity to convert costs to income, one of the core characteristics of the Blue Economy. This reduces the costs related to waste, usually covered by taxes offering yet another chance to reduce taxes. This is perhaps one of the most encouraging business climates to stimulate entrepreneurship – business models that allow a reduction in local taxes at a time of crisis.