Published June 2017
Activated carbon is an amorphous form of elemental carbon prepared by the 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 principal commercial product forms of activated carbon are granular, powdered, extruded, and fibers.
The activated carbon business has been and will continue to be driven by environmental regulations—principally regarding water and air purification—especially in the mature and more industrialized areas of the world. Environmental issues will continue to be the predominant force in the markets of rapidly developing countries, particularly China and India.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of activated carbon:
Although the industry has seen some consolidation in recent years by some of the major players, especially in Europe, total world capacity has grown by approximately 400,000 metric tons since 2012. Most of this growth took place in China, India, and the Philippines. A growing trend is the push or recommendation to use reactivated carbon. Reactivation of spent carbon can be a cost-effective alternative to virgin activated carbon production because of reduced disposal costs and a lower CO₂ footprint for reactivated carbon.
Worldwide, water treatment accounts for 41% of total consumption and continues to be the largest application for activated carbon. Air and gas purification accounted for 30% of the total, followed by food processing applications at 14%. Over the next five years, these percentages are not expected to change significantly. The consumption of activated carbon varies by region, both in terms of application and growth rate. For example, in the United States, activated carbon for food processing applications accounted for over 7% of the total whereas in China food processing applications made up 25% of the total. Total consumption in the United States is forecast to grow at an average annual rate of 2.6% compared with 5.4% in China.
US regulations controlling mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants (where compliance had to be completed by April 2016) contributed to significant consumption of activated carbon during 2012–16. Now that the compliance deadline has passed, consumption will slow in this application. However, the United States may see some significant growth from water purification markets, especially if future regulations are passed controlling certain chemicals in drinking water.
On 19 January 2013, a treaty called the Minamata Convention on Mercury was finalized in Geneva. It involved over 140 countries agreeing on a set of legally binding rules to control mercury pollution. When it goes into force (expected sometime in 2017 and once 50 countries have ratified it), coal-fired power plants, industrial boilers, and other large industrial facilities will be required to control mercury emissions using the best available technology. New facilities will have 5 years to comply with the rules, while existing facilities will have 10 years. The treaty will also ban the use of mercury in several different products by 2020 (excluding mercury-based preservative in vaccines).
A new emerging use for activated carbon is in capacitors and batteries for energy applications (e.g., batteries used in hybrid vehicles). Although the energy field is a long-term application, this could be a significant market for activated carbon in the future.
Developing countries or regions, such as China, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Other Asia (excluding Japan) will see growth rates of 4.0–5.5%. Environmental concerns and/or legislation are driving growth in these regions, especially China. Water treatment/purification and air and industrial gas purification are contributing to this growth and activated carbon will play a major role.
Overall, the forecast global average annual growth rate for activated carbon will be about 3.5% through 2021, driven by the large consuming regions of North America, Western Europe, and China.