INSIGHT: US Monolith to expand world’s largest methane pyrolysis plant

Al Greenwood

05-Jan-2022

HOUSTON (ICIS)–Monolith plans to expand what it bills as the largest methane pyrolysis unit ever built, which is already making emission-free hydrogen and carbon black using renewable energy.

Monolith’s process technology represents another way of producing hydrogen without any emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), joining those that rely on water electrolysers  and carbon capture. Monolith’s process technology produces hydrogen at a ratio of 1 tonne for every 3 tonnes of carbon black.

Even though the output favours carbon black, methane pyrolysis potentially could produce a lot of hydrogen given the size of the carbon-black market.

To keep up with demand growth, the world would need to build three 200,000 tonne/year carbon-black plants annually, said Rob Hanson, co-founder and CEO of Monolith. He made his comments in an interview with ICIS. Were Monolith’s process technology to meet that demand growth, that would amount to 200,000 tonnes/year of hydrogen using the company’s production ratio of 3-1.

Monolith is exploring other ways to use the carbon that its process produces, such as building materials, Hanson said. That would expand the size of the market for the company’s carbon, increasing the potential for more hydrogen production.

WORLD’S LARGEST
For close to a decade, Monolith has been working on its methane pyrolysis process, Hanson said. Methane pyrolysis uses heat to split methane molecules into hydrogen and carbon.

The challenge is not splitting the methane, Hanson said. That’s the easy part. The hard part is producing a high-value solid carbon that customers want.

“Carbon black is this really sophisticated nanomaterial of solid carbon that is not trivial to make,” he said. Often, methane pyrolysis produces a solid carbon that is similar to coke.

“We’ve been working with customers for now six, seven years to get the carbon black that we make from our process qualified,” he said.

In December, Monolith announced that it signed a collaboration agreement and letter of intent with The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co to develop carbon black that can be used in the company’s tyres.

Other uses for the carbon black include paints, plastics, seals, belts, hoses and batteries used in electric vehicles, Monolith said.

At the same time, the increased focus on sustainability brought more urgency to develop a cleaner way to make carbon black. The material is typically made with the furnace process, which partially combusts a heavy cut of oil.

The furnace process results in a lot of emissions of CO2, sulphur oxides (SOX) and nitrogen oxides (NOX).

Methane pyrolysis could help meet global demand for carbon black without the CO2 and pollution that comes with conventional production while making emission-free hydrogen.

About a year ago, Monolith started up its first plant, called Olive Creek 1, in Hallam, Nebraska, Hanson said. The plant produces 14,000 tonnes/year of carbon black, making it the world’s first commercial-scale methane pyrolysis unit.

Given the novelty of the new plant and its process technology, Monolith has proceeded with a multi-year ramp-up period, Hanson said. The plant should reach nameplate capacity in another year.

The company is now planning to expand the site in Hallam. In December, it received conditional approval from the Department of Energy for a $1.04bn loan through its Title XVII Innovative Energy Loan Guarantee Program.

The loan will allow Monolith to build 12 more similar units in its existing Olive Creek 1 plant, Hanson said.

“A lot of our strategy is not to take another scale step, not change the core process technology, simply replicate it,” he said. The company has already proven the technology with the first unit. By replicating it, Monolith is avoiding technology risks.

Construction should start in 2022, and operations should start in 2025, Hanson said. It should reach nameplate capacity in 2026.

The expansion will bring total carbon-black production at the site to 194,000 tonnes/year, making it the largest carbon-black facility in the US.

Power for the plants will come from a mix of renewable energy and renewable energy certificates (RECs).

For feedstock, Monolith is working with four to five sources of biogas, which will supplement its petroleum-based natural gas, Hanson said. The company would likely contract some of that biogas and gradually raise its renewable content to 10-30%.

This would make the company’s carbon black a carbon sink, making the production process carbon negative. Instead of sequestering CO2 underground, Monolith would be sequestering it in a valuable material, all while making its production process carbon negative.

Future projects could incorporate renewable natural gas as well, he said.

AMMONIA MARKET
Monolith will use the hydrogen produced at Olive Creek to make ammonia.

Monolith’s ammonia plant will use KBR’s process technology. When completed, the plant would produce 275,000 tonnes/year of ammonia.

Ammonia is an attractive market for Monolith’s hydrogen because its plant is in the heart of the US corn belt. The region imports about 2m tonnes/year of ammonia, Hanson said.

Shipping that ammonia to the corn belt has become a lot harder because Magellan had closed its pipeline system for the product.

Corn belt customers are now relying on expensive truck and rail to ship the imported ammonia, Hanson said. Recent problems with supply chains have made this even more challenging.

Monolith’s plant would become an emission-free ammonia supplier in the middle of the corn belt.

CARBON BLACK MARKET
Hanson estimates that the size of the carbon-black market is 15m tonnes/year. Providing its customers with zero CO2, SOX and NOX carbon-black represents a significant market for Monolith.

“We’ve got a lot of run-way on carbon black,” Hanson said.

Even with Monolith’s 3-1 production ratio, it would be producing a lot of hydrogen. Were Monolith to produce 15m tonnes/year of carbon black, its hydrogen output would be 5m tonnes/year, equal to 5% of current global production. Moreover, that hydrogen would be carbon free.

Beyond that, Hanson said Monolith could develop applications for solid carbon. If this is made with biogas, such solid carbon would act as a carbon sink. It could be incorporated into concrete and other building materials.

In all, Monolith has more than 40 projects in the US and around the world that it is working on, with seven projects in fairly advanced stages, Hanson said.

One of those is with the South Korean company SK Inc. The two had signed a memorandum of understanding, and they could sign a deal to create a joint venture as early as next year.

COST COMPETITIVENESS
Comparing the production costs for methane pyrolysis is complex because it makes two products, Hanson said. The cost analysis would allocate the process’s production costs between carbon black and hydrogen.

Nonetheless, Hanson said Monolith is cost competitive with existing production methodologies for conventional carbon black and hydrogen.

Sustainability regulations should benefit the company’s cost position. Carbon-black producers are installing SOX and NOX scrubbers at their US plants, Hanson said.

Carbon mitigation would add more costs for conventional carbon-black production and steam methane reforming,

OTHER METHANE PYROLYSIS PLAYERS
Monolith is not the only company developing methane pyrolysis. BASF sees it as a key emerging technology, and it is running a methane pyrolysis test plant in Ludwigshafen, Germany.

The methane pyrolysis technology of US-based Huntsman produces MIRALON, a structural-carbon material. The first commercial-scale plant could start up in 2024.

Russia-based Gazprom is also exploring methane pyrolysis.

Other players include C-Zero in the US and Hazer Group in Australia.

Insight by Al Greenwood

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