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Reflections of Rome

The 11th Biennial Carbon Black World conference was held last week at the Crown Plaza hotel in Rome, Italy. The last Carbon Black World conference was held in Vancouver, Canada in November 2008 just as the global economic crisis was emerging, and the general tone of the two conferences couldn’t have been more different. The general mood of the Vancouver conference two years ago was one of wariness and apprehension, as every day there came a new onslaught of bad news — the auto industry in desperate straits, tire plants idling, carbon black expansions being canceled or delayed. In retrospect, as dire as the mood was, the reality was probably worse, as the first six months of 2009 was one of the most challenging periods in the modern history of the carbon black industry, particularly in North America, the European Union, and Japan. The carbon black market in the EU, for instance, saw ten months of volume declines from around mid-2008 and finally bottoming out in April 2009, during which carbon black demand in the EU 27 countries fell an astounding 45%.

As steep as the downturn was, however, the recovery has been quite robust, particularly considering that underlying economic fundamentals (especially unemployment) remain problematic. Reflecting this, the mood at the conference was positive, with several major players planning expansions. Notch is currently forecasting that carbon black demand in the EU 27 countries will rise 15% to 1.4 million tonnes in 2010, after declining by 25% in 2009. The European carbon black industry is operating at or very close to its capacity, a reflection of both stronger domestic demand as well as the 340 KT of capacity that was removed in 2008-2010 (in France, the Netherlands, and the UK). Both Alexandria Carbon Black in Egypt and several of the leading Russian producers are embarking on capacity expansions to meet Europe’s future requirements. At the same time, the world’s number two carbon black producer, Evonik, is in the process of divesting its carbon black business, a development that — depending on how the sale works out — may shake up the industry’s established order.

With the conference over, I am working to complete the latest quarterly carbon black report, which will include fully updated supply and demand data, the latest information on future expansions, and a special report on the specialty black sector (i.e., carbon black used in non-rubber markets). The report will be sent to subscribers of the Carbon Black World Data Book 2010 upon completion. Non-subscribers can write to to order the report.

Above: Colosseum, exterior

Above: Colosseum, interior

Above: ‘Laocoön and His Sons,’ Vatican Museum

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