Coconut Shells Fuel Global Success
By Donna Kreutz
Bill Eubanks and Jacobi Carbons have ambitious plans to become the number-one activated carbon company in the world and to do so within the next five years. They’re already well on the way. Eubanks, now Chief Development Officer, is a chemical engineer who has worked in the industry since 1990 and for Jacobi since 2005, initially as Chief Operations Officer and more recently as President-Americas.
The Jacobi Group was founded in Sweden 100 years ago by Ferdinand Adolph Wilhelm Jacobi as a chemical trading company. Its first foray into activated carbon was in the 1960s as a distribution partner for Bayer. In the late 1980s, Jacobi made the first major investment in the activated carbon industry in China by any Western company. In 1999, a management buyout of Jacobi Carbon was completed; soon after, the company opened an office in the US. Jacobi opened its first coconut-shell-based activated carbon plant in Sri Lanka in 2006 and quickly grew to be the world’s largest manufacturer of coconut-shell-based carbons with five plants in four countries. In 2011, Jacobi acquired PICA SASU, a leading activated carbon supplier based in France and moved the US headquarters to Columbus, OH, where Pica USA was located.
In 2014, Jacobi Carbons was acquired (as a wholly owned subsidiary) by Osaka Gas Chemical Corporation (OGC) of Osaka, Japan. “OGC was already an active player in the Japanese market but wanted to increase their global presence. OGC management felt that Jacobi was a perfect match. The acquisition has been successful and unique, in that OGC left Jacobi’s management in place and allowed us to continue to run the subsidiary.
“Our CEO, Anders Skeini, built this business from scratch. We’re entrepreneurial and able to make decisions very quickly. We grew our business by (quite simply) listening to our customers, responding quickly to their needs and providing them with the products they wanted. Our applications engineers work with customers to understand what their problems are and provide the proper product for their application. Customers appreciate this approach and it has served us well. That’s how we’ve been able to grow our business so rapidly over the past decade.”
Jacobi Carbons has manufacturing facilities in China, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, France, Germany, Italy and now the Philippines, where it opened the world’s largest coconut-shell carbon production facility in 2015. This year, Jacobi has opened a warehousing and operations center in Spain. Another OGC subsidiary, Japan Envirochemicals Corporation, has facilities in Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia. “The combined revenues of Jacobi and JEC make us the second-largest activated carbon company in the world.”
Using coconut shells is an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly process and a totally renewable resource. They are readily available, a byproduct of the coconut industry. For many applications, activated carbon made from shells performs equal to or better than coal-based activated carbons, said Eubanks. “Coconut is very microporous and does a very good job of removing chlorine and chloramines from drinking water. It also does a superior job in the airstream with VOCs,” he added. “Coconut shell has been used as a filtration media since the 1930s, including in gas masks before and during World War II.”
The first step to produce coconut-shell activated carbon consists of carbonizing shells that are byproducts of the coconut industry. The exact coconut-shell carbonization process varies from country to country. For example, many Sri Lankan char suppliers use large open pits, most Philippines suppliers use 55-gallon drums and Vietnam suppliers, beehive kilns. The charcoal produced in this process forms the raw material source for the coconut-shell activation process. Jacobi has an extensive process for qualifying and managing their supply of charcoal to ensure a consistent activated carbon product.
Once the charcoal is received, it is further processed in rotary kilns at high temperatures. “We put the carbonized material in a rotary kiln in the presence of steam heated to 850-900°C. That activates or opens up the pores that are naturally occurring in coconut shell. Varying the temperature will control the level of activity. As the coconut shells are activated with little to no oxygen present, there is a lot of excess energy,” Eubanks said. “The best manufacturers in the business use that waste energy to produce the steam necessary to activate the carbon. It’s an energy-neutral process.”
The company website provides additional detail: “Under a scanning electron microscope, the pore development is clearly visible, looking like a porous sponge. This high concentration of pores within a relatively small volume produces a material with a phenomenal internal surface area. To put this in perspective, a teaspoon of activated carbon would exhibit a surface area equivalent to that of a football field. This vast surface area gives activated carbon its unique ability to adsorb a wide range of compounds from both the liquid and gas phase.”
Carbon is the most abundant element on earth. The most common forms used for activated carbons are coal (both bituminous and lignite), coconut shell and wood-based carbons. Eubanks said, “The key is that different raw materials all have an intrinsically different pore structure and work better for certain reactions and contaminants. We are biased about coconut shell but we also realize it does not work for everything. We are very careful in specifying the correct product for the correct application.”
Jacobi’s top markets are water filtration, gold recovery and cigarette filters. Their extensive product lines include AquaSorb for water treatment, EcoSorb for air treatment, AddSorb impregnated grades for specialty applications, ColorSorb for color removal applications, GoldSorb for precious-metals recovery and PetroSorb for petrochemical applications. “In addition,” Eubanks said, “Our Resinex division offers a full line of ion-exchange resins. In Europe, we have a division that provides a line of modular filtration units, carbon-exchange services and reactivation services. We don’t offer these services as yet in the US but are evaluating our options to do so.
New products for water treatment
“OGC leadership has stated that they plan to be in the number-one position in every business they are invested in—so our goal is to be the number-one activated carbon company as well. We will do this by remaining committed to one simple mission: to be the best-valued carbon manufacturer in the business, with technical support and customer service that are second to none. We are looking at acquisitions, expanding our manufacturing footprint, broadening product lines and investing in our service business. We will expand our market presence in Central and South America. My personal focus is on growth in the Americas and working on projects that have an impact on growth worldwide.
“We will certainly develop new products for water treatment. A big driver in the US is disinfection byproducts. There are more opportunities for us to grow our business in municipal-level drinking water. We also are seeing a lot more contaminants, from cyanotoxins and harmful algal blooms, pharmaceuticals and endocrine-disrupting compounds, in drinking water. We are focused on different and better products to attack those contaminants at the municipal level and at the home water filtration level. Activated carbon remains a reliable, cost-effective technology for all of these challenges, so the prospects for our industry remain bright.
“We stay busy and have a lot of fun,” Eubanks said. “I get to work with some outstanding people here in the US and throughout the world. It is an amazing experience working for Jacobi Carbons. It is a fantastic group of hard-working and dedicated employees—all 1,600 of them.”