Imerys doubles Carbon Black capacity at Willebroek

By Laura Syrett, Emma Hughes
Published: Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Imerys Graphite & Carbon is targeting batteries and polymers, describing its Willebroek expansion as a “significant investment”. The company has also reinforced its commitment to its Lac des Iles mine.

Europe’s largest graphite materials producer, Imerys Graphite & Carbon, has doubled production capacity of conductive carbon black at its facility in Willebroek, Belgium, following a significant investment over 12 months.

A new production line has now been successfully put into operation which, according to Hugues Jacquemin, vice president and general manager of Imerys Graphite & Carbon, enables the company to service growing demand for lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries and polymers.

"Demand has increased significantly over the past few years and in order to meet that demand, we’ve had to double our capacity at Willebroek," Jacquemin told IM at the plant opening.

Jacquemin explained that the expansion has taken place over one year and has involved a "significant investment in excess of €20m ($25m*)".

The Willebroek facility is not very labour intensive, however the company has added 14 more staff positions following the expansion.

Carbon black is an essential component of Li-ion batteries but is also used in plastics and rubber applications. It is used to prevent electrical discharge, to preserve the activity of electronic components, to allow further treatment and to transport electricity safely.

Energy storage

Imerys has further announced that it has been selected by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry for the 2014 Subsidy Program. 

As part of the programme, Imerys will be part of a project to establish 

a research and development centre specialised in environmentally frien-dly, high performing specialty carbons applications, including rechargeable batteries, supercapacitors and fuel cells.

Imerys Graphite & Carbon, which is a subsidiary of world-leading French industrial minerals group, Imerys SA, dedicates 34% of its business in terms of Euros to the global energy storage market.

This includes all different types of batteries, such as alkaline batteries, Li-ion batteries and lead acid batteries, Jacquemin told IM, adding that the rest of the business is subdivided between plastics, engineering materials, refractories and hot metal lubrication. 

"In terms of the percentage that will go towards the battery market, it’s difficult to say, as things evolve over time. I would say that a significant part of the capacity is going to the Li-ion battery market and the rest is going to the plastics market," Jacquemin explained.

In terms of geographical demand, Imerys Graphite & Carbon’s business is fairly balanced between three regions: Americas, Europe and Asia. 

"In terms of the plastics business, this is global. In terms of the Li-ion market, which is one of the growth areas we are servicing out of Willebroek, that’s mostly in Asia, as most of the battery cells for lithium-ion batteries are manufactured in Asia," Jacquemin told IM.

The Willebroek facility extension is part of the new capacities launched by Imerys at the group level, which contributed all together €55m to its revenue growth in the nine first months of 2014.

New energy

This plant expansion is the latest in a string of investments Imerys has made into new energy markets in recent years. The company reported in its Q3 2014 results that the Energy Solutions and Specialities business group generated revenue of €963m on 9 months, up 2.4% year-on-year (+ 10.4% like for like).

Highlighting its interest in the high pressure, high temperature hydraulic fracturing market, in April 2013 Imerys purchased Georgia, US-based ceramic proppant manufacturer, PyraMax Ceramics LLC, for a consideration of $235m. 

The plant will be used to meet the needs of the growing US oil and natural gas industry.

"The interest in non-conventional deposits is opening up global prospects for the oilfield minerals market, which was already growing in the US. By investing in this new industrial complex, Imerys has reached a significant step in the implementation of its internal growth strategy by 2016," Gilles Michel, Imerys CEO, said at the time.

More recently, Imerys bought Greece-based bentonite producer, S&B, for a maximum purchase price of €558m, further solidifying the company’s presence in the global industrial minerals market. 

Imerys earlier this year lost out on 

a bidding war to acquire US bentonite producer, AMCOL, to rival Minerals Technologies Inc., but would not 

be drawn on whether it viewed the S&B purchase as an alternative 

route to expand into the bentonite market.

The deal remains subject to regulatory approval, but an Imerys spokesperson confirmed to IM that the company expects the deal be concluded at the end of the first quarter of 2015.

Reinforced commitment to Lac des Iles mine

During the 4th Industrial Minerals Graphite and Graphene Conference, held in Berlin, Germany, (see p9-10). Imerys reinforced its commitment to keeping its Lac des Iles flake graphite mine in Quebec, Canada, in production, despite rumours that the project is earmarked for closure in the next few years.

Brushing off suggestions that the deposit - which is one of only two active graphite mines in Canada - is close to exhaustion, Fabrizio Corti, vice president sales and business development for Imerys Graphite and Carbon, said that the company had no plans to shut the Quebec site.

"We recently opened pit number six and next year we are planning to open pit number two," he told delegates.

He said that there had been lots of rumours about Imerys’ plans for the mine, but confirmed to IM that Lac des Iles has an indefinite future.

"We have invested in this mine because we believe in it," he said.

*Converted December 2014