Climate Protection Concepts (1): Recovered Carbon Black
You and I are both excited: the 2021 federal elections in germany are just around the corner. After many years of government, some parties are trying to get their house in order in time for the election campaign, whereas many voters are looking in a greener direction. There can be no doubt that the issue of climate protection is a key one. The constant admonition of science in recent years now seems to have reached the masses and the fears for our planet are quite rightly being expressed – especially by the youngest generations who are fighting back, demonstrating and calling for climate protection goals to be reached more quickly. And it's true: the swift implementation of appropriate measures is essential! Therefore, in the near future, I would like to find out together with you more about related problems, and at the same time find solutions and innovative climate protection concepts and shed light on them …
The Problem: "Cost concealment "
First of all, let's name a fundamental problem – cost obfuscation: when consumers take a closer look at consumer products, manufacturers reveal inaccurate figures or strange comparisons that make little sense. A real labyrinth of veiled costs, information and correlations! In order to be able to estimate and compare actual costs, related information and facts have to be considered holistically – the costs of production, operation and disposal. Let's take the electric car as an example: its operation is touted by many authorities as being more environmentally friendly and sustainable than that of the fuel car. But what is this claim based on? Even if the e-car puts almost 100% of its energy consumption on the road, the associated battery technology is so polluting that often over 100,000 kilometres have to be driven (during which the battery may not be replaced) in order to catch up with the conventional combustion engine in terms of the environmental balance. Then there is also the much more complicated disposal of the corresponding lithium-ion battery. Do not get me wrong: the technology behind it is terrific and innovative – of course, the last word has not yet been said when it comes to sustainability. I myself am a big fan of e-mobility, but I think it would be better to tell the public the truth!
This is just one of many examples. Real costs for a number of products in everyday life are hidden. This is how (unfortunately) how humans are. Every day we import millions of cheap items from China to transport them around the world in huge container ships, or fly from Europe to Africa and back every day to bring roses to the checkout area of our supermarket, which at some point end up sad and withered in the garbage. And while we're at the supermarket The “bargain prices” of the products that we pay there generally do not correspond to fair production or transport costs, and costs of disposal are not included either. If we take into account the actual costs of environmentally harmful sea transport, and allow for fair wages and working conditions, then supermarket prices for these “cheap items” would probably be twice or three times as high. It is therefore extremely important that we humans completely rethink our approach and begin to base real, holistic, fair costs on that basis. We also have to think of every form of waste as a valuable material: we must be able to completely recycle everything we manufacture, only then can we put these goods into circulation.
A Gigantic Challenge: the Raw Material "Carbon Black "
Carbon black is first and foremost soot. What sounds like a campfire romance to some is actually one of the world's most widely used high-tech industrial materials of our time. As the name suggests, carbon black consists of carbon – accordingly, its production is rather problematic with regard to the correspondingly high CO₂ emissions. Nevertheless, the areas of application are broad: from use for storage systems to the automotive industry, plastics and dyes to electronics – carbon black is used in numerous ways. You can assume that most black rubber or plastic products contain carbon black and the its production carries quite an environmental cost: every ton of carbon black requires the consumption of approx. 1.5 tons of raw fossil materials and also large amounts of water – and each ton of carbon black produced releases approx. 2.5-3.0 tons of CO₂ emissions. Every year around 14 million tons of industrial carbon black are produced worldwide, around 70% of which is used for the manufacture of vehicle tires alone, meaning that international demand is increasing by around 4.5% annually. This enormous environmental burden must be stopped urgently.
One Solution: Recovery
In principle, it is possible to recover industrial soot. But from which product? Obvious is the use of old tires – these are available in abundance: around the world, around 4 billion old tires are currently stored in landfills, with around 1.8 billion added each year. A tire contains up to 3 kg of carbon black. Just imagine what kind of raw material store is theoretically already available: 12 million tons of carbon black in old tires!
How it Becomes Possible – the Extraction of Raw Materials
“How is industrial soot supposed to be recovered from used tires? “ You might ask. There are already established processes – such as the thermal process of pyrolysis: used tires are treated in a thermal process with the exclusion of oxygen and their organic compounds are broken down. As a result, gases, oil and steel are extracted and a carbon-containing residue is generated, which is a solid by-product which – in addition to carbon (carbon black) – also contains impurities (ash) based on the additives used in tire production. Unfortunately, this residual material is not a real alternative to conventional carbon black: its ash content is too high and there are too many organic compounds and mineral components that make it difficult to use.
So how can the “raw soot” be made usable?
The Innovation: a Cleaning Process Based on Nanotechnology
In order to use this “recycled” carbon black (rCB), the mineral residues must be extracted without changing its beneficial properties. This means that controlled processes must then be used to remove oil and polymer residues in order to prepare the raw material for chemical cleaning. The subsequent special challenge in terms of sustainability is the extraction of ash, which can then also be used as a basis for producing various products. The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft has developed and patented a process for this purpose, based on a wet chemical, hydrothermal treatment. This approach is groundbreaking, and worth it: eco guidelines can be complied with 100% – and all without producing toxic waste.
This added value is unique: it not only makes it possible to sustainably recycle old tires, but also to create a recycled raw material base for three independent product groups: industrial soot (high-purity recovered carbon black), products based on silicon dioxide (paints, dyes, building materials, etc.) and zinc-based products (semiconductors, pharmaceutical products, etc.).
As you can see, there are already several innovative solutions for recovering industrial soot and carbon black, which are being further developed and optimised. In the near future, more and more automotive technologies will appear on our roads – meaning the production of tires will probably not decrease. But if we manage to think of this fact in terms of environmental protection, it can make an important contribution to achieving our climate goals. Commitment and foresight are necessary: Step by step, a global understanding of the state of our planet must be established – we must pull together and create new concepts that do climate protection justice! And as we have just read, "Recovered Carbon Black" is one of them...
Jan Malkus, 2021
Are you interested in more information on this topic? RCB Nanotechnologies GmbH, a company in which I am an investor, has developed and tested exciting approaches together with the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft for the recovery of carbon black!