Nov 14, 2002

New Directions in the Activated Carbon Industry

In the last two decades, the price of activated carbon (AC)
has fallen 75 percent. Many lower cost varieties have sufficient quality to be
useful in many applications. The price reduction, along with maintaining
reasonable quality, has created changes in the industry. This article describes
how those potentially influence the direction of the industry.

Twenty years ago, the large full-service AC companies had
professional staff assigned to help customers solve problems. The companies had
the latest analytical equipment and rapidly helped resolve the customer's
technical questions when they had a chance to sell AC. Since AC rapidly has
become a commodity material instead of a specialty chemical, these firms cannot
keep large professional staffs, the latest analytical equipment and stay
profitable at the same time.

Today, if you call your AC supplier or manufacturer and
request technical support services to help solve your problems, the safe bet is
you will find that they are not as interested in providing technical services.
With the U.S. economy slowing and low margins on carbon sales, large AC firms
will not be able to afford to have their senior professional staff solving

More Applications, Less Support

Among industry changes due to lower AC prices, there is
renewed interest in developing specialized AC applications and increased sales
due to improved cost-benefit ratio for end-users. AC now is more competitive
against alternative and emerging technologies such as air stripping, biological
treatment, phytoremediation, bottled water, new expensive sorbents and
membranes. The low-priced AC has forced several firms out of business and
reduced the profits of the remaining firms. Many others make AC from renewable
agricultural products and waste materials. Meanwhile, university research and
government funding for AC development and competing technologies are at an
all-time low. Unfortunately, less customer technical support from suppliers
also results in lower AC prices. New sources of technical support need to
emerge. There are many quality analytical labs that need additional work.
Possibly connecting these labs with the firms having environmental problems is
a future solution.

With big firms decreasing technical support services, small
firms should have increased demands for their services if they can fill the
marketplace needs. The global AC market will grow. However, the need for
helping customers solve their problems will not go away. Also, customers still
need basic and advanced training on AC. Carbon users still need help to select
the best AC for their applications. Customers still need engineering services
to design and/or build adsorption vessels to meet their needs and help solve
day-to-day operational problems. Laboratory testing services still are needed
to help customers solve a wide variety of problems. In the future, carbon users
will need to find services from the new players in the industry.

Lower AC prices should help developing countries. They will
need training and basic understanding to apply the AC technology. Waterborne
diseases and chemical pollution still are major drinking water problems for
many countries. However, making AC affordable is only the beginning step to
providing high-quality drinking water. In addition, other technical services
are required to facilitate high-quality drinking water in addition to lower AC
cost. Examples are construction firms to provide plumbed automated vessels to
hold granular activated carbon (GAC), testing service to monitor GAC system
performance, change out services to remove used GAC and replace with
regenerated GAC, regeneration facilities to cycle the used GAC back to useful
resource and trainers and consultants who can provide state-of-the-art and
practical knowledge. There is a need to work together to get the full benefits
of AC to protect the environment and human health.

Surely, used AC regenerators will see increased business as
the pool size of GAC in the marketplace grows. A time lag between the AC sale
and generation of used AC is expected. With a larger and more distributed pool
size of used AC, we expect additional regeneration service providers to emerge.
There should be no need to transport used AC coast-to-coast in the United
States or continent-to-continent on a global scale. The technology to
regenerate used AC back to a useful resource is about 50 years old. We expect
business economics to drive additional regeneration services from established
firms toward new players at strategic locations.

The Effects on Potential AC Users

At one time, the large AC firms combined the AC scale with
technical services and hardware. It was the one-stop shopping era, and it
lasted for years. Large firms prided themselves in providing customers a
turnkey solution to their problems. Often the AC user rented the mobile
adsorption vessels and received laboratory testing of their influent and
effluent from the AC supplier. The large firm helped to determine when the AC
needed to be changed based on the system monitoring results and prior
experience with many AC adsorption systems. Today, more companies are providing
only parts of the total AC service.

When countries such as China introduced low-priced carbon,
this eventually changed the market. At first the quality of these low-cost AC
were not reliable. With time, their low cost was coupled with competitive
quality for the majority of AC applications. All carbons are not equal. Today,
there are niches for special AC and associated technologies to command premium
prices. Examples would be MTBE, perchlorate, radon, arsenic and nitrate in the
liquid-phase and mercury in the vapor-phase at coal electric power plants.

When AC users and consulting engineers discovered low-cost
AC had reasonable quality, they began to switch suppliers. Many of the
suppliers were new brokers with low operating costs who connected the offshore
manufacturers with end-users. The end-users and their engineers have a need to
connect with service providers to accomplish installation, monitoring and
management of their AC adsorption systems.

With the Internet, virtual companies have been created that
allow several companies to provide the total service historically provided by
single AC firms. These virtual firms will form to solve specific problems.
After solving the problem, the firms will disband, only to form new team
members to solve new problems. One good website that illustrates the virtual company
phenomenon is Customers still prefer to get their AC
and supporting services from one firm. Someday, we may see some firms doing
business like they did 20 years ago, but there is a long way to go. With low AC
prices, many of the large U.S. manufacturers now are owned by conglomerate
business. However, the demand for AC and supporting services will continue to
grow. Firms that can adjust to the present market changes should do well over
the long-term. They will need to be innovative and provide new products and


In the beginning, if you had an AC application problem, one
or two telephone calls got it solved with the aid of a large AC manufacturer.
Some large firms now refer their customer's service needs, outside of the AC
sale, to service providers who do not sell AC or other competing products but
do offer AC application expertise. The large firm still wants to sell you AC
and realizes solving your problems will help their initial and follow-up sales
and improve user satisfaction. If you call on your AC manufacturer or supplier
and they no longer provide technical support, ask for names and numbers of
their recommended contacts. They still want to help you but you need to
communicate the right questions to get the task done. Thus, low AC price has
created business opportunities for entrepreneurs with specialized skills.

You do not learn about the practical applications of AC in
college or technical school. U.S. carbon users and engineering firms now must
learn the basics and advanced practical knowledge about AC adsorption systems.
Today, entrepreneurs are providing training courses, consulting services and
lab testing on AC and related sorbent industries. These entrepreneurs actually
are helping the new era of AC manufacturers and suppliers. Providing a larger
number of knowledgeable individuals for AC manufactures will increase sales. If
the manufacturer/supplier's goal is to sell the best and lowest-priced AC,
there is a need for smart AC users who can handle the problems once solved by
the large manufacturers.


Georgiana Riley, CEO and president of TIGG Corp. of
Pittsburgh, gave a "CEOs Speak" discussion at the 9th International
Activated Carbon Conference and covered some ideas presented in this article.

About the author

Dr. Henry G. Nowicki directs PACS, Inc., of Pittsburgh, a laboratory testing and consulting service. He has published more than 100 articles about environmental issued and activated carbon adsorption and has been an expert witness in more than 30 legal cases. He may be reached at
Dr. Mick Greenbank provides special projects, consulting and training at PACS, Inc. He teaches "Selecting the Best Activated Carbon for the Application." He may be reached at
Barbara Sherman directs the PACS short course and focused conference programs. She may be reached at provides 57 different one- to three-day courses and four two-day annual focused conferences. Four short courses are on activated carbon. PACS hosts the annual September International Activated Carbon Conference in Pittsburgh. Contact PACS at 724-457-6576;