On the brink of a green revolution in the tire industry

Recovered carbon black (rCB) is poised to become a fundamental lever for the decarbonization of the tire industry, a significant component of the automotive industry's climate impact.
Borea, Giovanni, pixelio.de

In its new white paper titled “Towards a Sustainable Tire Industry: Unlocking the Potential of Recovered Carbon Black,” the consulting firm Emerton provides, for the first time, a comprehensive overview of the challenges and prospects related to the valorization and use of this revolutionary potential material.

Carbon black (CB), a raw material derived from the incomplete combustion of heavy petroleum products, also known as virgin carbon black (vCB), is commonly used in everyday black-coloured products such as car tires.

Its substitute, recovered carbon black (rCB), is a sustainable material produced through the thermal pyrolysis of used tires. This technique involves heating tires at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, breaking down the rubber into carbon black, as well as oils and gases that can be reused or converted into energy. Not only does rCB provide a sustainable way to recycle used tires on a large scale, but its production also generates five times less carbon emissions than conventional vCB production, which relies on fossil fuels.

Growing global demand, industrial challenges

In 2023, global demand for carbon black reached approximately 18 million tons per year, with a market valued between $18 and $20 billion. The European market accounts for 15% of this global demand, about 2.7 million tons, equating to a value of $3 billion.

Recovered carbon black (rCB) presents itself as a sustainable alternative with the potential to replace 10 to 20% of virgin carbon black, approximately 250 to 550 kt per year in Europe, representing an approximate economic value of $265 to $530 million. However, this potential is limited by the inferior quality of rCB compared to virgin carbon black, a major challenge for producers aiming to ensure sufficient quality for successful industrial integration. Challenges such as the presence of impurities particularly limit its use in demanding applications like tire treads.

However, ongoing R&D efforts and technological advances aim to improve the production process and the quality of rCB, thereby expanding its range of applications. Notably, initiatives such as the integration of 40% sustainable materials in Michelin’s 2022 MotoE tires illustrate the continuous improvement in the quality of rCB.

A new ecosystem in development, focused on sustainability

The carbon black supply chain, traditionally dominated by manufacturers like Cabot, Birla Carbon, and Orion has become more complex with the introduction of recovered carbon black (rCB), reshaping the sector with the addition of new key players: raw material suppliers, rCB producers and valorisers, and ultimately, end users.

The emergence of rCB has thus stimulated strategic partnerships, notably between manufacturers of vCB and rCB for sustainability gains, as well as direct collaborations with end users like Michelin to secure rCB supplies.

To meet European requirements on the management of end-of-life tires, major manufacturers like Bridgestone and Michelin have created non-profit organizations, such as Aliapur in France, ensuring efficient collection up to 95%. Waste management companies, including Veolia, also contribute by collaborating with recycling infrastructures to channel used tires to rCB producers. The growing interest from investors and strategic partnerships, like the one between Klean Carbon and Niersberger to develop commercial-scale pyrolysis technology within the European Union, or initiatives like Michelin’s BlackCycle, which aim to establish a circular economy for tires in Europe, underline the conviction of stakeholders regarding the role of rCB in evolving towards a more sustainable tire industry.

In a manifesto published in January 2024, in partnership with Bridgestone, Michelin details that “less than 1% of all the carbon black used today in the world for the production of new tires comes from end-of-life recycled tires, due to a suboptimal supply chain for the recovery and reuse of carbon black.” They added that “converting end-of-life tires into advanced materials (…) marks an important first step towards achieving their goal of 40% sustainable recycled and renewable materials by 2030.”

Technological and regulatory obstacles to overcome

The expansion of the recovered carbon black market is still hindered by several factors, mainly related to a lack of technical maturity; pyrolysis technologies, crucial for the production of rCB, have not yet reached the level of development necessary for large-scale commercialization.

Moreover, the slow adoption of rCB in the industry, due to prolonged development and integration processes, represents another significant obstacle. Initiatives such as Michelin’s commitment to 100% sustainable tires by 2050, however, demonstrate a willingness to accelerate the adoption of rCB.

Despite the creation in 2017 of a committee (ASTM D36), establishing a quality assessment system for rCB to facilitate its integration into various applications, the complexity of classifications can still slow the development of standardized products.

Insufficient production capacities in the medium term

In Europe, the dozen players in the recovered carbon black industry have a combined production capacity of about 20 kt per year, with Circtec and Pyrum Innovations AG among the most notable, the latter aiming to quadruple its capacity by 2030.

Swedish Enviro Systems is planning to build five factories to increase annual rCB production to about 70 kt, aiming to process a third of used tires in Europe. Concurrently, Enviro and Antin Infrastructure Partners founded a JV in March 2023 with the ambition to recycle up to 1 million tons of end-of-life tires each year in Europe. The final investment decision for the first plant based in Sweden was signed in February 2024, with production expected to start in 2025.

While other players, like Elysium Nordic and Wastefront, are currently in the development phase and plan to increase their production capacity, the current supply does not meet the European demand, estimated between 250 and 550 kt per year, signaling an opportunity for newcomers to the market. Faced with a growing demand for recovered carbon black not fully covered by current production and short-term acceleration capacities, there is an opportunity for new players and investors to enter the market as illustrated by Marubeni’s entry in February 2024 with the acquisition of German company RCBNano.

To fully realize the potential of the sector, it is crucial to develop an environment conducive to sustainability and achieve technological maturity allowing for large-scale deployment. Technological advances and growing interest in rCB enable a transition to a greener and more sustainable tire industry, with an impact on the automotive sector as a whole.


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