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Pilot Plant in Belgium ready for the future of conductive carbon blacks

Conductive carbon blacks are essential for clean and efficient energy solutions such as lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells. As demand for these products rises in automotive and other energy transition sectors, Imerys is continuously improving its innovation, research and production efficiency to deliver beneficial product solutions to its customers. This commitment recently led to the inauguration of the cutting-edge Carbon Black Pilot Plant at Imerys Willebroek.

Imerys carbon black pilot plant in Willebroek, Belgium

An Innovation hub for product and process research

The production facility In Willebroek, Belgium where the new Pilot Plant is situated has been manufacturing conductive carbon black, such as C-NERGY™ for applications like batteries, conductive polymers and fuel cells since the 1990s. Built on the area of this site, the Pilot Plant  is a standalone, self-sufficient unit spanning approximately 100 square meters.

“It is a smart, scaled-down version of the neighboring industrial plant and offers exceptional flexibility,” says Frank Wittchen, Graphite & Carbon division VP and General Manager at Imerys. The plant serves as an innovation hub for researchers, engineers and production teams to conduct product and process research.

“Conductive carbon blacks are essential in the development of modern energy storage systems such as rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and energy conversion systems such as fuel cells,” explains Frank Rauscher, Research and Development Director at the Graphite & Carbon division of Imerys. “These carbon compounds are critical for improving electrical conductivity. Conductive carbon blacks in lithium-ion batteries promote the efficient transport of electrons and ions during charging and discharging, enhancing energy storage capacity and overall battery performance. In fuel cells, these carbon compounds contribute to the electrochemical processes that convert chemical energy into electricity, allowing for cleaner and more efficient energy generation.”

This facility complements the existing research and development network in Bironico, Switzerland, Toulouse, France and Kawasaki, Japan, fostering collaboration across these locations to directly assist Imerys customers around the world.

Supporting electric vehicles by meeting the lithium-ion battery industry’s demand

The world is rapidly transitioning to electric technologies, resulting in an ever-increasing global demand for conductive carbon blacks. Imerys even experienced a temporary sellout of its specialty carbon blacks in 2021 due to this surge in demand. To stay ahead, innovation is crucial, both in terms of product development and process innovation. This helps Imerys enhance performance and sustainability. 

“The Carbon Black Pilot Plant extends the capabilities of the existing industrial site, enabling the fast adaptation of new products and processes,” says Rauscher. “Its unique advantage lies in its ability to swiftly transform ideas from conception to development, testing, and large-scale production, all within the same site.” 

The constant need for innovation resulted in the Group’s approval of the pilot plant construction in September 2021. Despite some delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, construction began in 2022, and the plant was mechanically completed and commissioned in September 2023.

Sustainable innovation made in Europe

As Michal Gulas, R&D Team Leader Process Technology at the Graphite & Carbon division of Imerys, explains, the plant also contributes to the value chain’s sustainability: “With the pilot plant, we will work on many upstream and downstream innovation topics and will be supported with life cycle assessments to help us evaluate new feedstocks and raw materials. These materials will then be used to make new products, which will improve the overall efficiency and sustainability of the process.”

What's more, the industrial production plant will significantly enhance its environmental footprint. Earlier this year, E.ON and Imerys announced that E.ON would construct an advanced energy recovery plant at Imerys’ Belgium site, aiming to fully utilize and recover the energy contained in syngas by generating steam, producing up to 29 MW of electricity. Beyond meeting Imerys' local energy requirements, the electricity generated will be fed into the public grid, supplying the equivalent power needs of 40,000 households. E.ON also plans to explore the potential for utilizing the residual heat from the power plant to support a district heating network, thus further optimizing the site’s energy.

Innovation as an investment in the future

Imerys seeks to constantly innovate and invest to expand its customer reach and technical capabilities. Within this context, the Carbon Black Pilot Plant is part of a wider investment of approximately €120 million at Imerys’ Willebroek production site. 

“This underlines our commitment to growth within this market,” concludes Wittchen. “The pilot plant is a major tool in supporting this growth. It's exciting for R&D, it’s exciting for the Group and it shows the value Imerys places on innovation as an investment in its future.”

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