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Published: January 2010
Activated carbon is an amorphous form of elemental carbon prepared by destructive distillation of any one of a variety of carbonaceous raw materials, including wood, coal or coconut shells. It is used as a substrate primarily to selectively adsorb gases, vapors or colloidal solids from liquids or gases. The most significant physical characteristic of activated carbon is the enormous surface area of the internal pore structure developed during its preparation. Total surface areas for activated carbons commonly range from 450 square meters per gram to 1,800 square meters per gram.The principal commercial product forms of activated carbon are granular, powdered, extruded and fibers.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of activated carbon:
In March 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a federal rule to permanently reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants (Clean Air Mercury Rule). In February 2008, the CAMR was overturned and sent back to the EPA to be rewritten. As of fourth-quarter 2009, a deadline of November 2011 was established for the EPA to finalize the new federal mercury regulation. It is believed that a federal regulation, assuming the November 2011 deadline is met, would require compliance by 2014.
Some sources believe U.S. powdered activated carbon (PAC) consumption for mercury removal could be significantly higher than 420 thousand metric tons in 2014 if other mercury regulations are enacted on coal-fired processes other than utilities. Since the regulation also addresses the 189 hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), this could lead to additional market demand for activated carbon.
In 2008 and into 2009, activated carbon prices increased significantly—tight supply (driven by strong demand), high operating rates, low inventory levels, tight and high-priced supplies of foreign material, and high energy costs contributed to higher prices. Major players were ramping up to supply the mercury market (mercury removal from coal flue gas) and they continue to do so. Throughout most of 2009, prices held steady.
Arsenic levels continue to be an important factor in the PAC business, so PAC customers are increasingly becoming more interested in comparing carbons on a performance basis rather than just a price-per-pound basis.
The activated carbon business will continue to be driven by environmental regulations, principally water and air purification, especially in the mature and more industrialized areas of the world. In the next five years, environmental issues will likely become the predominant force in the markets of rapidly developing countries.
Overall, the estimated global average annual growth rate for activated carbon will be over 10% through 2014, driven by U.S. consumption—assuming federal regulations require compliance by U.S. coal-fired utilities to cut mercury emissions by 2014.