HALLAM, Neb.—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 U.S. 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 fall, Monolith is set to make its first run of commoditized 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 U.S. 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.