Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock
It's no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the global economy into the deepest recession in decades, wrecking big chemical end markets such as automotive, aerospace, and oil exploration.
But as evidenced by C&EN's latest Global Top 50 survey of chemical producers, which is based on data from the 2019 fiscal year, economic activity was slowing down before anyone had heard of the novel coronavirus.
The group of 50 firms posted $855.6 billion in chemical revenues for 2019, a 5.0% decline versus the year before.
Earnings posted an even stronger drop. The 46 companies that state operating income reported a combined $71.5 billion in profits, 28.2% below 2018. One firm, Sasol, reported a loss, something the largest chemical firms haven't done in years.
Explaining the reasons for the poor 2019 performance, executives cited trade tensions between the US and China, China's slowing economy, and sluggishness in key markets such as auto manufacturing.
These companies most certainly have a deeper downturn ahead of them this year. Because of COVID-19, the auto industry ground to a complete halt during the second quarter, oil prices collapsed, and the consumer economy has been decimated in the new stay-at-home world.
Predictions for 2020 are dour. The American Chemistry Council expects a 4.6% contraction in global gross domestic product this year and a 6.0% decline in the US. The trade group's base case is that US chemical volumes will drop by 9.3% in 2020.
The management consulting firm Deloitte expects a 15% decline in US chemical revenue. The credit ratings agency Moody's forecasts a 20% decline in profits for US chemical makers.
The German trade group, VCI, reported some good news in May: a 3.2% increase in German chemical production for the first quarter of 2020. But it noted that 75% of members expect European sales to decline for the full year.
Even with all the volatility, there weren't many big changes in C&EN's ranking this year. Last year's top company, DowDuPont, broke up into Dow, DuPont, and Corteva Agriscience. Of those three, Dow and DuPont both make the ranking, returning at numbers 3 and 14, respectively. BASF reclaims the top spot. And China's Sinopec is now second.
Hengli Petrochemical, which has grown precipitously, is another newcomer, debuting at a hefty 26th.
Dropping out of the pack are Huntsman, which recently spun off its pigments business and sold its intermediates unit, and Celanese, which didn't have enough sales to make the cut.
With the breakup last year of DowDuPont, BASF reclaimed its spot at the head of C&EN's Global Top 50 ranking. Perhaps, though, the German giant should be looking over its shoulder: sales at China's Sinopec are less than $5 billion behind. And lately, BASF has been engaging in portfolio tightening that includes the divestment of some midsize businesses. Last summer, BASF agreed to sell its pigment unit to the Japanese chemical maker DIC, shedding sales of about $1.1 billion in organic and inorganic pigments. In late December, BASF inked a deal to sell its construction chemicals business, with annual sales of about $2.8 billion, to the private equity firm Lone Star. In the plus column, BASF made a modest acquisition earlier this year when it purchased Solvay's nylon 6,6 business for $1.4 billion. And in a major organic growth initiative, the company began work on a $10 billion chemical complex—to be the firm's third-largest globally—in Zhanjiang, China. The first unit to start up, in 2022, will be an engineering plastics compounding plant. Operations at the rest of the facility will commence over the remainder of the decade.
Sinopec's sales slipped by about 7% in 2019, but owing to the breakup of DowDuPont, the Chinese firm still moved up one spot in C&EN's survey and is now the second-largest chemical company in the world. Early 2020 was tough on Sinopec due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With operations mostly in China, Sinopec experienced the impacts before many companies did. "We believe that as the control and prevention of outbreak continues to improve domestically, the domestic demand for petroleum and petrochemical products that was suppressed and frozen will rebound quickly," chairman Zhang Yuzhou wrote at the end of March. The company launched a major project with LyondellBasell Industries late last year when the two companies committed to build a propylene oxide/styrene plant in Zhenhai, China.
Dow—just Dow now, no longer Dow Chemical—split off last April from the firm that topped the previous C&EN survey, DowDuPont. The new Dow rejoins the ranking at number 3. The company is smaller than it was pre-DowDuPont, having sent its agrochemical business to Corteva Agriscience and several specialty chemical businesses, such as electronic and building materials, to the new DuPont. Dow is now more tightly focused on petrochemicals and plastics, and its big moves have been in this area. For example, it is expanding its Freeport, Texas, ethylene cracker complex. And it is installing propane dehydrogenation technology at an ethylene cracker in Louisiana. Although demand for Dow resins used in food packaging has held up during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dow had to throttle back polymer output due to slowness in other markets. It idled three polyethylene and two elastomers plants for more than 30 days. The plants—in the US and Argentina—represent about 10% of Dow's total capacity. Dow hopes to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 through projects such as processing recycled plastics back into chemicals. It also has an agreement with Shell to develop technology to use heat from renewable electricity, instead of fossil fuel combustion, to make ethylene.
Last month, Saudi Aramco completed the purchase of a 70% stake in Sabic for $69 billion. Both companies are owned by the Saudi government, so the change in control is perhaps academic. But now one of the largest petrochemical companies and one of the largest oil companies will be under one roof. The move is a centerpiece of Aramco's strategy to plunge deeper into petrochemicals because it projects that they will be the fastest-growing market for oil and gas. "The strategic integration of our upstream production and downstream chemicals feedstock production with Sabic's chemicals platform is expected to create opportunities," Aramco CEO Amin Nasser says in a statement. Beyond the Sabic purchase, Aramco is investing tens of billions of dollars in its own chemical projects. Meanwhile, Sabic is making investments of its own. It plans to increase its stake in the Swiss specialty chemical maker Clariant from 25% to more than 31%, and it is building a $10 billion petrochemical complex in Texas with ExxonMobil.
Ineos was born in 1998 with the purchase of an ethylene oxide facility in Antwerp, Belgium. In the subsequent 20 years it grew to become the fifth-largest chemical company in the world. It did so through ambitious acquisitions of chemical businesses that large oil and chemical companies no longer wanted. It continues with that tradition, signing a $5 billion deal last month to acquire BP's purified terephthalic acid and acetyls businesses. Ineos bought BP's polyolefin business back in 2005. And it was BP that originally owned that first ethylene oxide plant. Like many large chemical makers, Ineos has been rolling out sustainability initiatives. In cooperation with the start-up Agilyx, Ineos's Styrolution unit will build a plant in Illinois that breaks down postconsumer polystyrene into styrene. With another start-up, Plastic Energy, Ineos will build a pyrolysis plant that converts mixed plastic waste into a feedstock that Ineos will convert into new plastic.
Formosa Plastics started up an ethylene cracker at its Point Comfort, Texas, site, late last year. It is now commissioning units downstream from the cracker, including a low-density polyethylene plant. Meanwhile, an affiliate, Formosa Petrochemical, is conducting site preparation work on the so-called Sunshine Project, a $9.4 billion petrochemical cracker complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The plant faces community opposition. One organization, RISE St. James, asked Formosa for permission to conduct a Juneteenth ceremony at an area of the site where human remains were discovered. Formosa declined, citing "safety concerns on an active construction site."
COVID-19 has strained the finances of ExxonMobil, the largest American oil company. Oil prices cratered in 2020 due to lack of demand because people were staying home. In the first quarter of this year, ExxonMobil's earnings swung to a loss. As a result, the company is uncharacteristically pulling back on capital spending projects. ExxonMobil has many chemical projects that could be impacted. For example, the firm is planning an ethylene cracker in Daya Bay, China. It is also rumored to be considering an ethylene cracker project in Appalachia in the eastern US. Already underway are a $10 billion chemical complex in Texas with Sabic and α-olefins, propylene-ethylene copolymer, and polypropylene facilities at other US locations.
Mitsubishi Chemical was an active investor over the past year. It is buying Morrisville, Pennsylvania–based Gelest, a small maker of silicon chemicals, methacrylates, and metal-organic compounds. Mitsubishi will also acquire Minger Group, a Swiss recycler of high-end polymers such as polyether ether ketone and polyvinylidene difluoride. Among capital projects, Mitsubishi is dusting off plans to build a large methyl methacrylate (MMA) plant in the US based on the firm's Alpha technology, which derives MMA from ethylene, methanol, and carbon monoxide. It is an alternative to the more traditional acetone cyanohydrin process, which is based on hydrogen cyanide and acetone. The Japanese company has been kicking around the project since at least 2014.
LyondellBasell is making a major push into China. The company has formed a joint venture with Liaoning Bora Enterprise Group for a petrochemical project in Panjin that will feature an ethylene cracker as well as a polyethylene unit and a pair of polypropylene plants. The Chinese news agency Xinhua said the first phase of the project will cost $2.5 billion and that the partners envisage spending a total of $12 billion. Separately, LyondellBasell and Sinopec are planning a propylene oxide/styrene plant in Zhenhai, China, by 2022. LyondellBasell continues to invest in plastic recycling. It is building a pilot plant in Ferrara, Italy, to test a pyrolysis-based recycling technology that breaks down mixed plastic waste into a chemical feedstock. Despite brisk sales of resins for food packaging, LyondellBasell took a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. It temporarily put major projects on hold, including a massive propylene oxide/tert-butyl alcohol plant it is building in Texas.
Last year was Linde's first full year since its merger with Praxair to form an industrial gas giant. The company's $25.4 billion in sales puts it at number 10 in C&EN's ranking this year. It also edged out Air Liquide to become the largest industrial gas producer in the world. Linde's moves since the merger have been modest. With Hyosung, it is spending $245 million to build the world's largest liquid hydrogen facility in Ulsan, South Korea, by 2022. The companies aim to supply the fuel to passenger vehicles. With BASF, Linde has been working on a method to separate helium from natural gas. The technology uses a polyimide hollow-fiber separation membrane from Evonik Industries as an alternative to the customary—and expensive—cryogenic method of recovering the noble gas.
LG Chem's polystyrene plant in Visakhapatnam, India, was the site of a tragedy earlier this year when a styrene leak killed 12 people and injured hundreds more. The plant was restarting after being shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions. Officials are looking into whether operators were following proper procedures. Elsewhere, the company is investing more than $50 million to triple its carbon nanotube capacity in South Korea. LG says it is seeing 30% annual growth in nanotubes, driven mostly by sales to makers of electric-vehicle batteries. With the agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland, LG is developing a biobased route to acrylic acid. LG already makes petrochemical-based acrylic acid.
Air Liquide is no longer the world's largest industrial gas maker after being edged out by Linde, which merged with Praxair toward the end of 2018. However, barely $1 billion separates the two companies, so their positions could very well flip again in the future. Air Liquide seems determined to catch up. The French firm is spending $270 million to build a pair of air separation units on the US Gulf Coast, in part to support Methanex's methanol project in Geismar, Louisiana. It is also investing about $220 million in facilities in Tainan and Hsinchu, Taiwan, that will supply high-purity gases to three new semiconductor plants. Air Liquide is also involved in green chemistry projects. It is supplying carbon dioxide to Solidia, which is launching a process to use the greenhouse gas to cure concrete.
The chemical business of PetroChina, one of China's largest oil companies, saw its sales slide by 4% last year due to a slowing economy, even before COVID-19 hit the country. PetroChina's profits, following a trend among large petrochemical makers, dropped a mighty 56% in 2019. Undeterred, the company is building a slate of petrochemical projects. It is expanding capacity to make the polymer acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene in Jieyang, China. There, it's also using Honeywell technology to build the largest single-train p-xylene plant in the world. And PetroChina is planning facilities in China to make ethylene out of ethane.
After DuPont split off from DowDuPont last June, it soon became clear that the company was by no means done with its portfolio reshuffling. By December, DuPont had inked a deal to merge its nutrition and biosciences unit—which had $6.1 billion in sales last year from products like enzymes and probiotics—with International Flavors & Fragrances. DuPont is divesting $2 billion worth of smaller units, including its DuPont Sustainable Solutions consulting business. In February, DuPont's board ousted CEO Marc Doyle and replaced him with chairman and former CEO Ed Breen. The company blamed disappointing performance, but Wall Street saw the move as a harbinger of more aggressive divestitures to come. The company's electronic materials unit is often cited as a business ripe for a sale. "With no clear successor following the departure of CEO Marc Doyle, it is more likely, in our view, that Mr. Breen ultimately sells or fully breaks up DuPont," Deutsche Bank stock analyst David Begleiter wrote to clients in February.
Saudi Aramco's acquisition of Sabic isn't the only large deal meant to turn Aramco into a major player in petrochemicals. The Saudi national oil company has been negotiating to buy a 20% stake in Reliance Industries' petrochemical and refining business for $15 billion. The Saudi and Indian firms have a deep relationship, as Aramco has long been a crude oil supplier to Reliance's refinery, the world's largest, in Jamnagar, India. However, the deal hasn't been completed due to COVID-19-related uncertainty in energy markets. Reliance may spin off the business as a means of easing into a partnership with Aramco.
COVID-19 has not been kind to Toray. The Japanese company's carbon fiber and composites unit, which sells to aerospace applications, had been one of its strongest performers. The business' sales grew by 9.7% and its profits swelled by 81.6% during the fiscal year that ended March 31. But with the pandemic hitting aerospace harder than most other industries, Toray Composite Materials America was recently forced to shut down a plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and reduce capacity in Tacoma, Washington. About a quarter of the businesses' workforce was affected. The company expects the poor sales to last another 3–5 years.
Sumitomo Chemical and another Japanese chemical firm, DIC, didn't like the credit ratings they were getting from US-based Moody's, so they recently dropped the service and went exclusively with Japan Credit Rating Agency. In many places, such a move would be seen as changing referees because the calls aren't going your way. Sumitomo has another perspective: "A gap in ratings between Moody's and Japanese rating companies tends to confuse investors," an investor relations representative tells C&EN. Sumitomo had a tough fiscal year—it saw sales decline by 6.5% and profit fall by 52.5%—but it wasn't an outlier among chemical firms. Sumitomo made a sizable acquisition this year when it bought the South American crop protection chemical and seed treatment business of Australia's Nufarm for nearly $1.2 billion.
Evonik continues its streak of portfolio moves meant to increase its focus on specialty chemicals. In February, the company closed its $640 million purchase of PeroxyChem, a US maker of hydrogen peroxide and peracetic acid. Last August, Evonik sold its methacrylates business to the private equity firm Advent International for $3.4 billion. The business was renamed Röhm after acrylic pioneer Otto Röhm. Evonik has also been busy in the laboratory. For example, Creavis, its innovation unit, developed an anion-exchange membrane for electrolyzing water into oxygen and hydrogen more efficiently than traditional electrolysis. Chemical companies hope to use renewable energy and cheap electrolysis to derive chemicals from water and carbon dioxide rather than hydrocarbons. In that vein, the German firm and Siemens are building a test facility for technology that makes industrial chemicals from CO2 and water.
Shin-Etsu had a better 2019 than most Japanese firms, posting a modest 3.2% decline in sales and a slight increase in profits. Bright spots for the company were its silicones and semiconductor silicon businesses. Only Shin-Etsu's polyvinyl chloride (PVC) unit showed a significant drop in sales and profits, following the trend across the commodity chemical industry. PVC profitability may improve now that Shin-Etsu has started up an ethylene cracker in Plaquemine, Louisiana. Back-integrating into PVC raw materials is a long-held goal for the company.
Even before COVID-19, Covestro, a German polyurethane and polycarbonate maker, was facing obstacles. In January, due to what it called "challenging global market conditions," the company announced an 18–24-month delay of its methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) project in Baytown, Texas. The $1.7 billion investment in the polyurethane raw material—Covestro's largest ever—was originally planned for completion in 2024. The company has had sunnier news on the environmental front. It secured a $240 million loan from the European Investment Bank to fund sustainability R&D projects, such as finding better ways to recycle plastic waste. And Covestro is starting a cooperation to use renewable raw materials from Neste in polycarbonates. Separately, the firm is introducing a polycarbonate film in which more than 50% of its carbon content comes from plant-based oils supplied by another firm.
Braskem fetched some really positive headlines earlier this year. When the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the firm's polypropylene operations in the US, workers volunteered to live at plants in West Virginia and Pennsylvania so they could keep making materials used for nonwoven fabrics for face masks. This was more than they had to do. Most chemical companies merely followed the social distancing and safety guidelines issued by the US government. Despite the pandemic, the Brazilian company managed to put the final touches on a polypropylene plant in La Porte, Texas, the first such facility to be built in North America since 2003. Braskem has been conducting test runs at the plant this month.
Lotte got a toehold in the US market through an ethylene cracker complex in Louisiana that it built with the US firm Westlake Chemical. The South Korean chemical maker erected its own ethylene glycol plant downstream from the joint venture. Late last year, it tweaked the partnership by selling a 35% interest in the cracker to Westlake for $800 million. Separately, it sold a polyethylene terephthalate plant in England to Mexico's Alpek. At home, Lotte secured an agreement to buy purified terephthalic acid (PTA) from Hanwha General Chemical, allowing it to convert its own PTA facility in Ulsan, South Korea, into a purified isophthalic acid plant.
Farmers want their fertilizers cheap, so for producers the name of the game is low-cost production and logistics. Yara is an outlier among fertilizer companies in emphasizing technology. For example, the Norwegian firm recently invested $3 million in Boost Biomes, a start-up developing microbial products that assist in crop-nutrient uptake. Yara is conducting a feasibility study for electricity-derived hydrogen for its ammonia plant in Pilbara, Australia. It is investigating digital farming with IBM and is trying to develop autonomous ships for fertilizer delivery. The company even took home a Silver Dolphin award in International Communications at the Cannes Film Festival for its film From Earth to Table.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has hit most chemical firms hard, it has absolutely crushed Solvay because of its exposure to aerospace, automotive, and oil and gas—three of the most impacted industries. The Belgian firm's sales for April and May in these sectors dropped 40%. Other Solvay businesses merely saw a 20% decline. Things are so bad that Solvay took a $1.7 billion write off, mostly related to its 2015 purchase of the aerospace-composites specialist Cytec Industries. Even before COVID-19, the business was troubled, as Boeing cut output of its 737 Max airplanes. Amidst the difficulties, Solvay sold its nylon 6,6 business to BASF. It is also spending about $200 million to expand a soda ash plant in Wyoming in response to burgeoning demand for the glass ingredient in the developing world.
Mitsui Chemicals has a new CEO, 33-year company veteran Osamu Hashimoto. He took over on April 1 from Tsutomu Tannowa, who moved into the chairman role. Hashimoto assumes the helm at a challenging time. COVID-19 deeply impacted Mitsui in the fiscal year that ended March 31, helping push its sales down by 9.7% and its profits by 23.3%. The outlook for the 2020 fiscal year is dim as well. Hashimoto recently said he expects sales to the auto industry to decline 20% year-over-year. And he promised an "in-depth" restructuring of Mitsui's basic materials business.
Most companies increased capital and R&D spending in 2019.
|Chemical capital spending||Chemical R&D spending|
|2019 ($ MILLIONS)||% CHANGE FROM 2018||% OF CHEMICAL SALES||2019 ($ MILLIONS)||% CHANGE FROM 2018||% OF CHEMICAL SALES|
|Air Products & Chemicals||1,990||26.9||22.3||73||13.0||0.8|
Note: Figures are for companies reporting capital and/or R&D expenditures.
n/a means not available.
Hengli Petrochemical didn't even make the cut for C&EN's last ranking. But this year the Chinese producer of polyester intermediates and other petrochemicals debuts at number 26. The company's revenues expanded by two-thirds in 2019. Usually, a sales expansion of that size is because of a big acquisition. In Hengli's case, it is due to the opening of company-built projects. For instance, the firm started up a crude-to-chemicals plant in 2019 that can produce more than 4 million metric tons (t) of p-xylene annually. Hengli has another year of growth ahead as it starts up an ethylene cracker complex and 5 million t of purified terephthalic acid capacity.
Bayer's 2018 acquisition of Monsanto was a controversial move that almost caused a shareholder mutiny. Much of the distress was related to liability over Roundup, Monsanto's glyphosate herbicide. Bayer bought a company that was being sued in cases linking Roundup use to disease. Last month, Bayer inked a $10 billion settlement that it hopes will put these troubles behind it. The settlement will cover over 125,000 lawsuits from plaintiffs alleging Roundup contributed to their non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Bayer will also settle with farmers who claim its dicamba herbicide damaged their crops. Last month, Bayer canceled plans to build a $1 billion dicamba plant in Louisiana following court and US Environmental Protection Agency rulings that will restrict its use.
Indorama has grown rapidly over the past two decades by making acquisitions and building projects along its core polyethylene terephthalate (PET) fiber and resins chain. Now the Thai company is branching out. Earlier this year, it completed the $2 billion purchase of Huntsman's intermediates and surfactants business. The acquisition gives Indorama new products like propylene oxide, surfactants, and ethanolamines. It also brings an ethylene cracker in Texas that pairs well with a cracker in Louisiana that the firm recently revamped and restarted. The ethylene output from both will back-integrate downstream chemicals such as ethylene oxide and ethylene glycol used to make surfactants and PET. It is not all growth, all the time, for Indorama, though. Corpus Christi Polymers—a three-way polyester joint venture with Alpek and Far Eastern Investment—has halted construction of a plant in Texas, citing rising construction costs. The partners expect to complete the plant in 2023.
Once again, the seed and agrochemical industry is seeing consolidation. Recent years brought Bayer's purchase of Monsanto and the merger of Dow and DuPont's agrochemical operations to form Corteva Agriscience. This time, the action is at Syngenta. ChemChina bought Syngenta in 2017 for $43 billion. Then, earlier this year, ChemChina inked an agreement to merge its agrochemical operations with those of Sinochem. Now, the Sinochem operations, as well as Adama—the Israel-based generic crop-protection chemical arm of ChemChina—will all operate under the umbrella of the recast Syngenta Group. The new firm will have annual sales, including seeds, of $23.2 billion and 48,000 employees.
DSM shook hands on a couple of deals earlier this year that punctuate its shift away from industrial chemicals and toward nutrition and health ingredients. Last month, the Dutch firm agreed to pay $1.1 billion for Austria's Erber Group, which owns the animal-health firms Biomin and Romer Labs. Biomin sells enzymes and adsorbents that bind and break down toxins present in feed. Romer supplies diagnostics for mycotoxins, food allergens, and pathogens. Earlier this year, DSM signed an $830 million deal for the Danish firm Glycom, a major supplier of human milk oligosaccharides. DSM's materials business has been active as well. With Sabic and the Finnish paper company UPM, DSM plans to make a biobased version of its ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene fiber Dyneema.
An Asahi Kasei scientist, Akira Yoshino, shared the 2019 Nobel Prize in chemistry along with John B. Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin and M. Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University "for the development of lithium-ion batteries." Yoshino, who did the research for Asahi in the 1980s, showed that lithium ions could intercalate in petroleum coke. On the business front, Asahi continued its recent trend of expanding aggressively in synthetic suede, increasingly popular for automotive interiors. Asahi's Sage Automotive Interiors subsidiary, which it bought in 2018, agreed to buy the auto-fabric business of the car-seat maker Adient for $175 million.
Wanhua's sales have shot up like a rocket in recent years as the company built polyurethane chemical plants in China. Wanhua is now the largest producer of methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) in the world. Looking to establish itself in the US, the company unveiled plans in 2017 to build a $1.25 billion MDI plant in Louisiana. Now Wanhua is scaling back the project. The company said in September that it was changing the scope of the new plant and even scouting new locations. A company official blamed "a significant increase" in its capital expenditure budget. Although the official said Wanhua is still committed to a US plant, the company isn't alone in dealing with a challenging polyurethane market. Covestro has delayed its big US MDI investment by up to 2 years. And earlier this month, Chemours disclosed it is closing a plant making the MDI raw material aniline.
Arkema aims to become a pure play in specialty chemicals. To that end, it has been shedding commodity chemicals businesses. Notably, the French company is exploring strategic options for its methacrylates business. Interestingly, another European firm embracing specialties, Evonik Industries, recently sold its own methacrylates business to a private equity firm. Additionally, Arkema sold its functional polyolefin business to South Korea's SK Global Chemical in a $370 million deal. Arkema is also tackling homespun chemical innovations. On its behalf, the fertilizer maker Nutrien is building an anhydrous hydrogen fluoride facility in North Carolina. Unlike traditional plants that derive the inorganic chemical from mined fluorspar, this facility—which will cost $150 million and be the first of its kind in the US—will use fluorine-containing minerals extracted as a by-product of phosphate mining.
Chevron Phillips celebrates its 20th anniversary in July 2020. The company was formed in 2000 through the merger of the chemical businesses of two oil giants, Phillips Petroleum and Chevron. At the time, petrochemical consolidation was in the air. Exxon had just merged with Mobil, and Dow was buying Union Carbide. ChevronPhillips had $5.7 billion in sales when it was formed. It has since invested massively in projects in the Middle East and on the US Gulf Coast. It was the first company to announce a cracker project as part of the massive US petrochemical building wave of the 2010s. Fun fact: a coin flip in 2000 determined whether the company would be called Chevron Phillips or Phillips Chevron.
Eastman has been emphasizing recycling initiatives in its plastics business. The company started up a program that substitutes plastic waste for coal as a raw material in its gasification plant in Kingsport, Tennessee. Eastman is also constructing a plant to break down polyethylene terephthalate into the raw materials dimethyl terephthalate and ethylene glycol. And last month, the company introduced Tritan Renew copolyester, which is 50% derived from plastic waste. Tritan competes with other clear polymers such as polycarbonate in applications including durable water bottles.
Ownership of Borealis is changing hands—kind of. The Austrian refiner OMV is increasing its stake in the chemical maker from 36% to 75% through a $4.7 billion purchase from Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund. However, Mubadala owns a 25% stake in OMV and will retain a 25% stake in Borealis. The purchase will allow OMV to diversify away from fuels. Meanwhile, Borealis, traditionally a regional European petrochemical player, is expanding overseas. It acquired an interest in a Texas petrochemical project from its Canadian sister company Nova Chemicals. And, along with Abu Dhabi National Oil, it joined an initiative of BASF and the Indian conglomerate Adani to build a propylene-based chemical complex in Mundra, Gujarat, India. The project centers on a propane dehydrogenation facility and includes a polypropylene plant that will use Borealis technology. However, the company backed out of plans to build a petrochemical complex in Kazakhstan because of a souring industry outlook.
In early July, Air Products signed onto what it is calling the world's largest green-hydrogen project, to be built in Saudi Arabia. Air Products, the Saudi power company ACWA Power, and the Saudi developer Neom will invest about $5 billion. They will build 4 GW of solar and wind-power capacity, an electrolysis plant to generate hydrogen from water, and a plant to convert the hydrogen into 1.2 million t of ammonia per year. Air Products is separately spending $2 billion to ship the ammonia to sites around the world, where it will be dissociated to recover hydrogen as a vehicle fuel. In another project, arguably on the opposite end of the environmental spectrum, Air Products plans to spend $2 billion on a complex in Indonesia that makes methanol from coal. The gasification plant will be able to make about 2 million t of methanol per year from about 6 million t of local coal. Air Products has spent billions on coal-to-chemicals plants in China as well.
Mosaic faced a challenging year in 2019. Sales declined by 7.1% and profits dropped 53.1%. The fertilizer maker's CEO, Joc O'Rourke, blamed the US-China tariff row and Mother Nature in his letter to shareholders. "In 2019, a confluence of factors—including three consecutive seasons of poor weather during fertilizer application periods in North America as well as shifting global agricultural trade policy—created a difficult business environment for the fertilizer industry," he wrote. The company has been taking action. It cut $1 billion in annual costs over the last 5 years. It has been accelerating the development of a potash mine in Saskatchewan. And it says it has realized $330 million in annual synergies by integrating its 2018 acquisition of Brazil's Vale Fertilizantes.
Ecolab had been planning to spin off its oil-field chemicals business, which had about $2.4 billion in sales in 2019. Instead, in June, Ecolab merged it with the oil-field equipment firm Apergy to create a new company called ChampionX. It is worth about $7.4 billion and generates about $3.5 billion in sales. Separately, Ecolab was forced late last year by British antitrust authorities to sell the cleaning chemicals business Holchem, which it acquired in 2018. Normally, regulators block deals or force companies to sell off assets before transactions have been consummated; in this case it happened months after the deal had already closed.
Thanks in part to rising platinum group metal prices, Johnson Matthey saw its sales jump by more than 20% in 2019. A repeat performance is unlikely for 2020, given that the COVID-19 pandemic crushed precious-metal prices. In addition, Matthey, which makes automotive emission control catalysts, was hit hard by the downturn in vehicle sales. It is cutting 2,500 jobs worldwide—about 17% of its head count—in an effort to save about $100 million. Separately, Johnson Matthey has been stepping up efforts to build its auto battery business. Among other things, it acquired intellectual property rights to a portfolio of silicon alloy–based anode materials from 3M.
Hanwha Chemical changed its name to Hanwha Solutions early this year to reflect the diversifying nature of its business. Sales in its core chemical business declined in 2019, but its photovoltaic materials business nearly doubled. The company credited higher average selling prices. Overall, the South Korean company saw a 25% jump in sales for the year, propelling it from the 50th position in C&EN's ranking last year to number 41 this year.
Like Johnson Matthey, its competitor in catalysts and precious metals, Umicore saw a big rise in sales last year owing to high prices for platinum-group metals. But more recently, because of the impact of COVID-19 on auto sales, the Belgian company was forced to temporarily idle emission-catalyst production. Also like Johnson Matthey, Umicore is betting on batteries. The company signed an agreement with LG Chem to supply 125,000 metric tons of nickel, manganese, and cobalt cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries starting this year. The Belgian firm also agreed to recycle LG Chem's cathode material production waste.
The South Korean firm has a stated goal of becoming a top-10 chemical company by 2024. SK isn't there yet, but the company has been rocketing up C&EN's ranking in recent years. It should get a modest lift from the purchase of Arkema's functional polyolefin business earlier this year for $370 million. The business, which has annual sales of about $275 million, makes ethylene copolymers and terpolymers for food packaging and other markets. SK has been rolling up acquisitions in this sector. In 2017, it purchased Dow's polyvinylidene chloride and ethylene acrylic acid businesses.
Westlake saw a 6% decline in sales in 2019. Now, the US company—which makes polyvinyl chloride and polyolefins—is feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. "The start of the first quarter saw strength in construction materials and flexible food packaging relative to the first quarter of 2019, but as we progressed through the first quarter, we began to see the impact on the demand for our products as a result of COVID-19," CEO Albert Chao said in the company's first-quarter earnings announcement. During the quarter, the PVC business, which sells largely to the construction market, experienced declining prices. Polyolefins, sold for food packaging, have been stronger.
The last couple of years have been disastrous for Sasol. The company's massive new project in Lake Charles, Louisiana, ran $4 billion over budget, with costs reaching nearly $13 billion. And a new low-density polyethylene plant at the site suffered an explosion upon start-up earlier this year. Sasol launched an internal investigation into the cost overruns and found that project management "engaged in conduct that was inappropriate, demonstrated a lack of competence, and was not transparent." The probe, however, didn't find evidence of fraud. Sasol's joint CEOs, Bongani Nqwababa and Stephen Cornell, stepped down, acknowledging their supervision was lacking. Now the company is seeking other companies to buy into the chemical complex it just built.
Nutrien has been hitting a slowdown in some of its core fertilizer markets. The company is shutting down a big ammonia plant in Trinidad for at least 3 months, and last fall, the Canadian company idled potash mines in Saskatchewan. Looking to expand its presence outside of North America, Nutrien is buying the Brazilian Ag retailer Agrosema Comercial Agricola, which has about $60 million in sales. In a technological initiative, Nutrien's North Carolina phosphate mining operation will be the site of a new plant to extract fluorine-containing minerals. Arkema has signed on to use this feedstock as an alternative to imported fluorspar to make hydrogen fluoride.
PTT's ethylene cracker project planned for Belmont, Ohio, just suffered a major setback. PTT and its partner, South Korea's Daelim, had expected a 6–9 month delay due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In reassessing the project, Daelim dropped out. PTT says it is still committed to the project and that it is looking for another partner. The Thai firm has been mulling the project since about 2013 but has yet to reach a final investment decision.
Lanxess is trimming its sails a bit. The German specialty chemical maker agreed last August to sell its chrome chemical business to the Chinese leather-chemical producer Brother Enterprises. The business generates annual sales of about $110 million. In November, it agreed to sell its 74% stake in a chrome-ore mine in South Africa to Clover Alloys. The site employs 1,500 people. Earlier this year, Lanxess sold its organotin catalysts and specialties business to PMC group. These small transactions follow a much larger deal in 2018: Lanxess's $3.4 billion sale of the remainder of its synthetic rubber business to Saudi Aramco.
Tosoh's executive suite has been buzzing with investment decisions as of late. The company just completed an upgrade of its R&D facility in Shunan, Japan, which houses 150 employees. Also in Shunan, the Japanese firm will spend nearly $50 million to expand chloroprene rubber capacity by 2021. There it is also investing $93 million to increase production of bromine by 30%. The new output will be used in flame retardants, fungicides, medicines, and agrochemicals. Outside of Japan, Tosoh Silica and the fertilizer maker Namhae Chemical are planning a silica plant in South Korea to serve the tire industry.
Not a company known for making large acquisitions, DIC is racking up a big one with its $1.3 billion purchase of BASF's pigment business. The company agreed to the deal last August, and it is scheduled to be completed later this year. The business has annual sales of about $1.1 billion making organic, inorganic, and pearlescent pigments. In North America, DIC's pigment business is better known as Sun Chemical. That unit recently inked a deal to purchase Sensient Technologies' digital ink business. Along with Sumitomo Chemical, DIC dropped the US credit rating agency Moody's after a downgrade.
The Covestro entry was updated on Aug. 17, 2020, to correctly represent the firm's sources of renewable raw materials. Covestro has started a cooperation to use renewable materials from Neste in polycarbonates, but Neste is not the raw material source for a partially biobased polycarbonate film that Covestro recently introduced.