Maryville celebrates rebirth of carbon black plant

By TONY BROWN Staff writer
Maryville Daily Forum

Many Maryville officials turned out Friday for opening ceremonies welcoming the city’s newest corporate citizen, Maryville Carbon Solutions.

The first manufacturing facility opened by Boulder, Colorado-based startup Bolder Industries, Maryville Carbon, is housed in the former Carbolytic Materials Company plant, which closed in 2012 after a troubled three-year run that included an oil spill, two fires, and eventual bankruptcy.

Like its predecessor, Maryville Carbon intends to transform scrap automotive tires into a trademarked version of carbon black, a coloring and reinforcing agent used to manufacture an almost endless list of rubber and plastic products from gaskets and wetsuits to conveyor belts to O-rings.

In addition to its primary product, “Bolder Black,” the factory, now operating on a shakedown or “commission” basis with a skeleton crew, plans to produce syngas — a type of fuel gas — and lubricant-grade oil through a process known as pyrolysis.

It will also recover and sell the steel used in tire belting.

The oil will be marketed as well, but plans call for construction of a small syngas plant on site that will produce enough electricity to power the entire facility. The company is also proposing transferal of any excess wattage to Northwest Missouri State University or the City of Maryville.

Pyrolysis is accomplished by subjecting ground-up tire material to temperatures of around 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit in an oxygen-starved environment, what amounts to a huge oven designed to siphon off the oil and gas and leave behind a dark-colored solid that is reduced to ultra-fine powder before being mixed with water and formed into tiny pellets for shipment to customers.

During a tour of the plant — refitted over the past two years at a cost of around $10 million — Bolder Industries founder and CEO Tony Wibbeler began by leading a group of local residents through the factory’s shredding area where a huge grinder renders tires into palm-sized chunks.

Other machinery recovers steel belting and shreds the rubber into ever-smaller pieces until it is ready for the pyrolysis oven, which makes up factory’s technological heart.

“That’s where the magic happens,” Wibbeler said.

While the process is similar to the one employed by Carbolytic Materials, Wibbeler insists that a number of refinements have made production cleaner and safer, and that the possibility of fires and spills is low.

For example, one of the CMC fires was caused by the use of powerful heaters to keep exterior pipes filled with a mixture of water and oil from freezing on a bitterly cold night.

Wibbeler said that won’t happen using a new system that places most production and storage operations inside the plant and separates oil and water earlier in the process.

In addition, he said, Maryville Carbon plans to offer monthly tours of the facility to members of Maryville’s largely volunteer fire department and has installed an advanced-technology fire-suppression system. The idea of the tours is to familiarize a changing roster of firefighters with the factory and its contents so they will be prepared should an emergency arise.

While combining heat, rubber, gas, and oil is an unavoidably messy undertaking, Wibbeler and his management team believe Bolder Black will pay off environmentally as well as financially.

Ken Dunn, Bolder Industries’ sustainability director, said Friday that “We are very proud of what we have here” in terms of producing a substance from scrap tires, which for years have created solid-waste problems on a global sale.

Dunn said 300 million tires are scrapped each year, and that an increasing number of landfills are refusing to take them. The result, he said, is that about 50 percent of all waste tires are incinerated, a practice that has come under increasing scrutiny by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

At full production, Dunn said, Maryville Carbon will initially be able to process up to 1 million scrap tires a year, enough to produce 7 million pounds of Bolder Black, 1.2 million gallons of oil, and 1,600 tons of recovered steel.

Compared to producing a similar amount of “virgin” carbon black from petroleum, Dunn said, the Maryville Carbon operation will reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 480,000 tons a year, save 161 million gallons of water, and produce 84 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually, enough to power nearly 8,000 single-family homes.

From a customer’s point of view, Dunn said major manufacturers — including General Motors and Ford — are increasingly interested in carbon black recovered from tires and other kinds of scrap rubber because it improves their environmental “scorecard” with regard to various regulatory requirements.

Another upside for buyers, he said, is that while the cost of conventional carbon black is tied to the price of oil, Bolder Black is produced from “feedstock” — that is old tires — that is essentially free.

That means, Dunn said, that Bolder Industries should be able to offer customers a fixed price over the term of multi-year contracts regardless of how oil prices fluctuate.

As for the local impact, Bolder Industries Vice President Nate Murphy said he has about 20 job openings to fill almost immediately, including a plant manager position. At full production, Murphy said, the factory will likely have a payroll of between 35 and 40 workers clocking in over three shifts.

If the customer demand is there, Murphy said that for technical reasons the plant is most efficient operating 24 hours a day, since once the pyrolytic oven is hot it needs to stay hot.

During Friday’s event, local government and economic development officials praised Maryville Carbon for taking a community-centered approach in re-opening the shuttered plant.

Josh McKim, executive director of Nodaway County Economic Development, noted that the company cleared up tax debt left by the previous owners, even though it had no obligation to do so.

“There is social good in the business plan they’ve got,” McKim said. “It’s more than just a profit center. Lots of companies give lip service to that, but they have put their money where their mouth is.”

City Manager Greg McDanel, who along with McKim has been working to bring Maryville Carbon to Maryville over the last couple of years, said significant challenges had to be addressed before a deal was struck, but that the company chose to “embrace those challenges and pivot toward the future and growth.”

Also speaking prior to a ceremonial ribbon-cutting at the plant was state Rep. Allen Andrews, R-Grant City, who called the recruitment process resulting in the company’s move to Maryville a “job well done.”

Andrews added that he believed Maryville Carbon will benefit from what he sees as the Maryville region’s work ethic and tight-knit sense of community.

“Not only are we good workers,” he said, “we’re good neighbors.”

 

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